Bobby is an almost impossibly sad film, and it’s not only because Robert F. Kennedy is fatally shot in the end. It’s not even because the film itself amounts to snippets of over-earnest hackery assembled by a writer/director (Emilio Estevez) who is in way over his head, or because people like Lindsay Lohan, Sharon Stone, and Demi Moore do not deserve to belong in a film with Bobby Kennedy’s Christian name for its title.
It’s sad because Bobby recalls a man, an era, and a sense of hopefulness in this country that hasn’t existed since Bobby Kennedy’s death and may never exist again — at least not the way things are going now. For people of my generation and after, “Bobby” is rarely referred to by his first name — mostly he’s Robert F. Kennedy, a celebrated figure in our history texts, someone with a populist message, a storied lineage, and an incontrovertible belief that all races should be treated equally. But it wasn’t until seeing the stock footage of RFK, interspersed within an otherwise unremarkable film, that I came to recognize the full measure of the man. And to then watch him die was heartbreaking on more levels than you can imagine.
I’m a Clinton man, myself. I grew up admiring him, both as governor of my state and later as President. The guy could, and still can, stir my patriotic fervor like nobody else — along with David Letterman, Bill Clinton is the only contemporary iconic figure that can arouse intensely personal feelings in me (and probably the only guy with enough charisma to compensate for his own failures, both as a person and a politician). Clinton may not have been able to bridge the ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans, but he did successfully bring Black America and Liberal White America together in a way that mattered outside of voting booths. But it didn’t take more than 10 minutes of images and a few scraps of speeches from Bobby Kennedy for me to realize that even Bill Clinton has nothing on RFK. That man was the complete motherfucking package, something you realize the instant you see an old Midwestern farmer (a Midwestern farmer, people) get choked up because he got the honor of standing next to a Democrat, a vision that’s almost shocking in view of the current political landscape. I suspect there were a great number of people who didn’t care for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 (Sirhan Sirhan, southern racists, and fervent (Eugene) McCarthyites, not least among them), but it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t have somehow won over even his most ardent haters, given a few years in office.
And that’s what so impossibly sad about Bobby — the idea that, had he not been killed and if Nixon had not won the election of 1968, our country might’ve gone in a completely different direction. Politicians might still command a modicum of respect, intelligence and thoughtfulness would still be held in high regard, and that hope and compassion might actually have a place in today’s political world. Instead, elections now are nothing but glorified competitions for power with little or no veneer of concern for the actual constituents. Indeed, what’s apparent from the film is that Bobby never beat people over the head with rhetoric, never resorted to talking points, and never even raised his voice during his most impassioned speeches. But his tenor, his manner, and his soft-spoken words not only inspired people to believe that they mattered, even on an individual level, but that he actually gave a damn about them. And that’s something that can’t be said for many politicians — Democratic or Republican — in the last 30 years.
Nevertheless, there are not a lot of objectively positive things to say about Emilio Estevez’s feature project, outside of the 10 or 15 minutes that feature Bobby himself. It’s an almost incoherent string of thin, unimaginative plot lines, held together by enough unnecessary star wattage to light the SuperBowl. The plot, such as it is, concerns the many, many people who worked at, or were staying in, the Ambassador Hotel on the day that RFK was shot after winning the California primary. And unfortunately, up until the final minutes of the film, most of these people only had a very tenuous connection to the climactic finale — and even that connection is unimaginably strained.
But, let’s start at the top: Paul (William H. Macy) is the general manager of the hotel, married to Miriam (Sharon Stone), the hotel’s manicurist, and sleeping with one of the hotel’s switchboard operators, Angela (Heather Graham). One of Paul’s employees, Timmons (Christian Slater), is a racist who runs the kitchen, which staffed by mostly Hispanics, here represented by José (Freddy Rodriquez) — who is bitter because his racist boss has given him a double-shift, preventing him from catching a historic Dodgers game — and Miguel (Jacob Vargas), who feels that Hispanics are third-class citizens, oppressed not only by the whites but also by the second-class blacks. Fortuitously, the wise black man who makes an impeccable blueberry cobbler (Laurence Fishburne), puts Miguel in his place, so to speak, via the use of some not-so-subtle MLK vs. Malcolm X ideological interplay. Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte play retired doormen who stick around the hotel because they have nothing better to do than play chess, reminisce about their lives, and kvetch about the maladies of old age.
Among the hotel’s occupants are a married couple, Samantha (Helen Hunt) and Jack (Martin Sheen), who are having minor marital difficulties stemming from Jack’s depression. Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore) is a washed-up, alcoholic singer (based loosely, I believe, on Rosemary Clooney) who is set to sing before Bobby takes the stage, and her put-upon husband (Emilio Estevez, who, in his 40s, bears a striking resemblance to his father) stands around to give Demi someone to over-act against (and you thought she was bad in G.I. Jane.) (Bobby also marks the reunion of Estevez and Moore, 21 years after St. Elmo’s Fire, which makes some of us feel really old). Diane (Lindsay Lohan) is staying at the hotel on the night she is set to marry William (Elijah Wood) in an effort to keep him out of Vietnam. And Fisher (Ashton Kutcher) is the hippie druggie who trips with two low-level campaign workers (Brian Geraghty and Shia Labeouf). The Kennedy campaign is run by Wade (Joshua Jackson) and Dwayne (Nick Cannon), who are charged with the get-out-the-vote operation and organizing the event. And for good measure, there’s a Czech reporter (Svetlana Metkina) who really wants an interview with Bobby Kennedy.
Believe it or not, Estevez does manage to tie all these loose plot strands into the Kennedy shooting, in a climax that is surprisingly affecting, given the modicum of interest or sympathy he manages to build for the characters in what little screen time they each have (most of the actors, save for Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher and Sharon Stone, also turn in successful performances, especially Slater and Rodriquez). But then again, it’s hard not to feel a tad overwhelmed by the events onscreen when they concern the death of Bobby Kennedy, and while one of his more famous speeches (“On the Death of Martin Luther King”) is playing over the film’s concluding scenes.
In fact, it would take a ridiculously thoughtless and/or heartless person not to be moved by the final minutes of the film, and for all of Bobby’s faults, it’s hard not to appreciate Estevez’s efforts. Personally, I think that Estevez ought to be kept at least 100 yards away from any film that doesn’t concern Mighty Ducks, but the guy’s heart is definitely in the right place here. I just wish he hadn’t seen fit to pollute the film with the latest paparazzi fodder, which detracts from his already weak story — and it wouldn’t have killed him to cut two or five of the intersecting plotlines, which would’ve allowed him to focus more attention on the stronger ones, making the final minutes that much more potent.
Despite its numerable flaws, however, Bobby deserves to be seen, not necessarily as a quality piece of cinema, but as a reminder of RFK for older generations and a primer for the younger. I’d be hard-pressed to call it a fitting tribute to Bobby Kennedy, but it is remarkable in its ability to recall the magic and the emotion behind the man, and it will leave you walking out of the theater with an ache that may stick with you for days.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He is currently halfway through a three-year ‘sentence’ in upstate, NY, where he lives with his wife. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Bobby / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | November 27, 2006 | Comments ()