Bobby Review

Back in the 1980s, Emilio Estevez was considered one of the more talented of the “Brat Pack”, a group of young actors who came to fame around that time, particularly those who starred in three films: The Outsiders, The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire. Estevez was in all three, but it was maybe unfortunate that he was so closely identified with the Brat Pack. More marginal Brat Packers such as Tom Cruise and, for a while, Demi Moore, became major stars, but as an actor Estevez’s time in the sun was ending. He seems to have realised this, as he made a point of expanding his repertoire. He wrote the script for That Was Then…This Is Now, the last of the S.E. Hinton adaptations of that decade. Then he turned to direction, but his early efforts, Wisdom and Men at Work, the latter teaming him with his brother Charlie Sheen, sank without trace. For most of the last decade he has worked on television, including episodes of CSI: NY.

Seven years from inception to completion, Bobby has the air of an intended magnum opus, Estevez’s attempt to make a large-scale, politically engaged film. There’s nothing wrong with that as such: the American film industry could do with more ambition, and I’d much rather see something that aims high and falls short rather than one that aims low and misses. And Bobby does unfortunately fall short. It’s a respectable, decently made film that doesn’t come anywhere near fulfilling its ambitions.

Bobby takes place on 4 June 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel, New York City. Senator Robert F. Kennedy has won the California Primary and looks set to be the Democratic Presidential candidate against Richard Nixon. However, the night ended with Kennedy being shot by Sirhan Sirhan, and he died in hospital just over a day later. Estevez tells the story of that night via a multi-story structure involving some twenty-two characters. John Casey (Anthony Hopkins) is a former doorman at the hotel who hangs around for his chess matches with Nelson (Harry Belafonte). Hotel manager Paul (William H. Macy) sacks his underling Timmons (Christian Slater) for not allowing employees time off to vote. Meanwhile, Paul, while married to manicurist Miriam (Sharon Stone), is having an affair with switchboard operator Angela (Heather Graham). Miriam is tending to alcoholic singer Virginia (Demi Moore) whose marriage to her band’s drummer Tim (Estevez) is on the rocks. Meanwhile longhaired Fisher (Ashton Kutcher) turns a couple of Kennedy aides onto LSD, and Diane (Lindsay Lohan) agrees to marry William (Elijah Wood) to prevent him being drafted. Kennedy himself is mostly represented by archive footage.

You can see the attraction of the subject, especially for a liberal American: of a turning point in American history, of a potentially great President who never would be, a man who tried to tackle such issues as racism and environmental pollution. No doubt there were and are people who thought otherwise, but we never get to see them: Estevez ducks the challenge of dramatising viewpoints antithetical to his own. He also falls into the trap that other better filmmakers have fallen into, of tackling subjects like racism but never digging any deeper than wishing we could all just get along. The Kennedy archive footage sometimes seems an unsubtle nudge at issues of the twenty-first century: those shots of RFK talking to children about pollution is one, and there are also shots of a campaign worker talking about “chads” on voting forms.

The other issue issue is the multiplot structure. The master of this particular form was of course the late Robert Altman, and other people who have managed it include Paul Thomas Anderson. Estevez is simply not in that league. The difficulty with this kind of structure is that the many entwining plotlines have to work together and build towards something. Otherwise you have several storylines, the less interesting ones distracting you from the better ones, and all brought to an abrupt halt with Sirhan Sirhan’s gunshots. Occasionally Estevez gives way to some directorial indulgencies, most notably the LSD-trip sequence. Some of these are nicely acted by a very starry cast but they don’t add up to the grand statement it seems was intended.

The Weinstein Company, via its label Genius Products LLC, have distributed two versions of Bobby on DVD. The one under review is the widescreen version, and the affiliate links to the left refer to this version, which is encoded for Region 1 only. There is also a fullscreen version available. The DVD starts with an anti-tobacco advertisement and trailers for Breaking and Entering, Factory Girl, Miss Potter and Shut Up and Sing.

Shot in Super 35, Bobby is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 2.40:1, anamorphically enhanced. There’s nothing wrong with the original materials, which is no more than you’d expect for a brand-new film. However, the picture is a little soft and mildly grainy, with bluish or golden tinges to many scenes. I’ve no doubt this is intentional, though it’s certainly not a look typical of the period.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1. For the most part the mix is content to keep the dialogue clear with occasional directional effects. The sound mixer cuts loose during the LSD trip scene, with dialogue and effects coming out of the surround speakers. A short dialogue exchange in Spanish has fixed subtitles, otherwise they are optional and available in either English or Spanish for the feature only if not the extras.

The main extra is “Bobby: The Making of an American Epic” (28:32). This is pretty much a standard piece, mixing interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and film extracts. Actors tell you how great it was to work with each other, and extol RFK’s importance…you get the picture. A bit more interesting is an interview with Mark Isham about his score and footage of Aretha Franklin recording her song which plays over the end credits. “Eyewitness Accounts from the Ambassador Hotel” (29:13) is pretty much what it says, interviews with people who were there on the night, in some cases the real-life equivalent of the fictional characters portrayed in the film. These two featurettes are presented in 4:3. Finally there is the green-label (all audiences) trailer, which runs 2:24 and is non-anamorphic 2.40:1.

Emilio Estevez was introduced to Bobby Kennedy at the age of five and shook his hand. It’s clear that Bobby is his labour of love and you have to cut it some slack for ambition. But it’s a film that doesn’t live up to its aspirations, for the simple reason that its writer-director, while not untalented, simply doesn’t have the ability or maturity to do this sort of theme justice.

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