Jacob’s Ladder is an anti-war film released in 1990, a month before the start of the Gulf War. It’s about life and death, love and humanity, but the studio promoted it as a horror movie. It came and went in an instant but many consider it among cinema’s most memorable films.

“Some films are bigger than you and bigger than what you think a film should be,” New York University Film Professor Zhenya Kiperman said in introducing Jacob’s Ladder as part of his Golden Age of Cinema film festival. Or as his film teacher said before screening for students: “The studio didn’t know what to do with it; the public didn’t go to see it, and the critics hated it. Enjoy!”

Jacob’s Ladder stars Tim Robbins as Jacob Singer, an American soldier in Vietnam who suffers a horrific battle experience, the nature of which is unclear until the end of the film.

After the war, Jacob is working for the post office when scary things begin to happen to him. He’s almost run over by a subway; his doctor is killed in an explosion; he’s being chased by faceless demons.

Eventually he begins to suspect that he and his Vietnam buddies were victims of some kind of army experiment. After realizing that they’re all suffering the same symptoms, they hire a lawyer to investigate. Suddenly, though, the others back out and the lawyer tells him records show that none of them were even in Vietnam.

What is the truth? What is hallucination and what’s reality? Even after the film is over, you won’t be sure. As critic Roger Ebert wrote at the time, “Jacob’s Ladder lives on the raw edge of insanity, and carries us along with it.”

The actual story isn’t as important as the questions it raises. “This movie was not a pleasant experience,” Ebert noted, “but it was exhilarating in the sense that I was able to observe filmmakers working at the edge of their abilities and aspirations. Not every movie has to be fun.”

It’s a rare film that fits that description, but it could also be applied to Tim Robbins’ own Oscar-winning Dead Man Walking. Although different, both movies are powerful. Neither provides easy answers; you’re not told what to think about them. Both have a political, as well as emotional, impact.

That’s an important point for an activist-artist like Robbins. The son of folksinger Gill Robbins of the Highwaymen, he was surrounded by politics and theater from a young age.

His activism was sparked by seeing “the flowering of different movements” in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he grew up.

“What fuels my writing has generally been anger,” he told the film festival audience. That and seeing how the media – “this supposedly free media” – chooses to present information.

After Jacob’s Ladder, several Gulf War soldiers wrote Robbins to say they had refused to receive the Army’s inoculations against biological weapons. Although they were punished for their stance, they told Robbins that, after seeing his movie, they were happy they had resisted.

“Now, of course,” Robbins said, “many vets are experiencing symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome.” The Army denies that such a condition exists and some doctors are now attributing the symptoms to merely “stress.”

His own experience speaking out “makes me believe that [those who quash free speech] fear it.” At the Academy Awards in 1993, he and his partner, Susan Sarandon, seized the chance to bring attention to the plight of Haitians who were being detained at Guantanamo simply because they were HIV-positive. President Clinton and other government officials had reneged on their promise to end the internment.

The next day the media blasted the couple for speaking out, although “not one person reported what we said.” Those in the audience that night who remained silent, Robbins said, are the very people who should be using their art to stand up to injustice.

“When you have a society afraid to speak out,” Robbins said, “you nullify your freedom of speech.”

The film festival continues through July 2. For information call (917) 750-3651 or visit www.goldenageofcinema.org.

The author can be reached at crummel@cpusa.org,