"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope"
- Robert Kennedy, June 1966
The night Bobby Kennedy died the hopes of liberal America died with him. That is the central premise on which Emilio Estevez has based Bobby, a seven-year labour of love for the writer-director that acts as a lament for a future denied to his generation at the hands of a crazed gunman. Set on the day of the assassination in and around the glamorous Ambassador Hotel, which served as both Kennedy’s campaign headquarters for the California primary and the scene of his sudden and brutal death, it follows a group of disparate characters working or residing in the hotel, all with their own hopes and dreams of what changes a Kennedy presidency will bring. At the time it was seen as a pivotal moment in US politics, the climax to a decade of extraordinary social upheaval. For the first time minorities were finding their voices and making themselves heard, refusing to be cowed any longer by the old conservative guard and conventions of society which had kept them in check for so long. From the civil rights movement, through to the explosion in youth culture, and on to issues of morality, sexuality and creative and spiritual freedom, the Sixties had seen an avalanche of change, and Kennedy was seen as the spokesman for a new generation that cared about speaking up for those for whom Washington had hitherto ignored. It had all started, of course, with his brother at the beginning of the decade: although much of the JFK legacy owes far more to subsequent mythologizing than actual fact, there was no doubt he represented a sea change in American culture. For the first time here was a youthful, exciting president, one who made politics seem cool and exciting, sexy even. He inspired people - even more so following his apparent martyrdom to the oppressing forces against whom the battle was subsequently waged - and people didn’t want to go back. America was breaking loose from its chains, and while Kennedy's successor Lyndon B Johnson had made great progress, the Vietnam War had severely dinted his reputation among the new liberals storming the battlefronts. As the Republicans looked to mount a fight back against the increasing levels of promiscuity (in all senses of the word) which they felt threatened the very soul of American life, the left decided they needed a new saviour. Vietnam marked the crisis point, the focus around which all other left vs right battles revolved. It seemed anachronistic that this should be a time for sending the country's youth to the other side of the world to fight against Communism - that smacked of old-style McCarthyism, and that was definitely not cool any more. Make love not war went up the cry, and it was a cry that, perhaps inevitably, only a Kennedy could answer. Bobby, who during his brother’s lifetime had been his closest confidante and advisor but who had had no ambitions to step out from Jack’s lengthy shadow, was initially reluctant to run. However, following Johnson’s announcement he would not run for a third term in 1968 (a decision somewhat forced upon him by mediocre showings in early primaries) Kennedy stepped forward. He wasn’t the only peace candidate - Eugene McCarthy (no relation) was also running - but by the time the primary season hit California on June 4th it was Kennedy who had the momentum. His election as official party nominee seemed certain, his subsequent elevation to the White House inevitable. History was behind him. He was going to turn America around.
Of course, it didn’t happen like that. The dreams of millions were shattered a little after 1am on June 5th when Sirhan Sirhan, a nut who blamed Kennedy for the situation in Palestine, gunned him down in the Ambassador’s kitchen following Kennedy’s victory speech. It is to Estevez’s credit that in those moments his audience feels as shattered and shocked as Kennedy’s supporters must have been at the time. It is to his detriment that the rest of the film comes nowhere close to evoking similar emotions. Adopting a Short Cuts style but displaying sketchy caricatures rather than fully-drawn characters, Estevez populates his film with characters all of whom have a direct stake in Kennedy’s election but who are not sufficiently interesting to warrant the viewer investing in their optimism. Subtly is not the film’s strong point: each character in a different way will be directly affected by Kennedy’s death in the bluntest way. There’s a Mexican kitchen worker played by Freddy Rodriguez, the heart of the piece, who would hope for a better deal for immigrants, and an older kitchen chef (Laurence Fishburne) for whom the civil rights movement has meant careful juggling of the two worlds he straddles, and who recognises that with Kennedy there really is hope for the end of segregation and discrimination. There’s a young couple, played by Elijah Wood and Lindsay Lohan, who are marrying in the hopes of Wood’s character escaping service in Vietnam. Two youthful party workers bunk off a last day of doorbell ringing to experience their first taste of LSD. And so on and so forth. We follow their tales throughout the day, interweaving between them until they all come together for the climactic scenes of the assassination itself.
All of these characters go through the motions, but the point is so obvious and so belaboured that there’s little to affect the viewer. Aside from the tenuous link of Kennedy, nothing connects them other than their proximity, and Estevez doesn’t have the skill to tie his disparate threads together to resonate on any deeper level. Their lives are looking better under Kennedy; their lives will now be worse with his loss. It’s as bland as that. Which is a shame because Estevez has assembled an extraordinary ensemble cast which is just crying out for better material. One just has to list them to appreciate how good this film could have been: there’s Anthony Hopkins as the Ambassador’s manager, striking up a charmingly warm, low-key double act with Harry Belafonte over games of chess; William H Macy as a typical Macy character, busily ruining his own life over an affair with a switchboard girl (Heather Graham) while his careworn wife (an excellent Sharon Stone) prepares brides-to-be in the hotel’s beauty salon; Fishburne's wise chef who has managed to carve out a career for himself despite the colour of his skin contrasted with Christian Slater as the racist kitchen manager, and more. Most are wasted, giving performances far superior to the cardboard cutouts they’re having to play. Despite the quality of Emilio’s ambition, and general sumptuousness of the production, they’ve all been in far better films.
This is doubly regrettable as it becomes obvious how much care and attention Estevez has poured into his film. This is most evident in the loving recreation of the period and, specifically, the Ambassador Hotel itself - despite the impressive cast list, the hotel turns out to be quite the star of the show. The story of the Ambassador after Kennedy’s shooting is, like in Estevez’s view society in general, one of long, slow decline, its neighbourhood in the Seventies becoming downtrodden and plagued with crime. Despite a vigorous campaign over the next two decades, it was demolished just as the film was being shot - Estevez pleaded with the contractors to give him one week to shoot there, which was granted - and thus serves as a metaphor for the film as a whole. However, it was not all doom and gloom: all the interior fittings and furnishings were auctioned off beforehand and Estevez's team managed to get their hands on many of them to use in the movie's interiors. If you see an expansive white armchair, or a particularly striking lampshade in the film, it’s highly probable that it is an original piece from the hotel. This adds immeasurably to the authenticity of the piece, and is quite the film’s strongest card, bringing the world and atmosphere of the place to life in a way which the characters never quite do. One only has to see the seamless blend of footage from the actual night of the assassination and the newly-shot material for the movie, which is perfectly done, to see how close the sets are to the original (although the film stock change is regrettable - see Video.) With Hopkins as aging hotel owner spending his time sitting in the lounge reminiscing about the stars who have passed through its walls and gently acknowledging that its glory days are behind it, the film pays nearly as much tribute to the place as to Kennedy himself.
The liberal use of stock footage of the senator working the campaign trail, as well as of course the night of his death, lends immeasurably to the feeling of loss (aside from one brief shot, archive material provides all of Kennedy’s appearances in the film). The final sequence is by far the most powerful of the film, which is perhaps unfortunate given that it is inevitably the most sensational. The assassination is handled with dignity, and well brings across the mixture of chaos, shock, horror and numbness that those present must have felt. The fatal flaw of the film, that it is more a polemic than a narrative, more a eulogy than a biography, is also its greatest strength in these moments - ironically, the biggest impression one comes away from the film is not that things have got far worse in the intervening decades but simply the emotions of how everyone involved must have felt - no mean feat, given that the audience knows what is coming.
However, that strength does not outweigh the fundamental impression that this is a liberal tract. Everything is geared solely to the idea that Kennedy would have made everything alright again. On the one hand, it’s inarguable that Kennedy was a principled man who could have done a tremendous lot of good, and that US politics was damaged by his death. Following Kennedy’s demise the Democrats put forward Johnson’s VP Hubert Humphrey as their candidate but the momentum was lost. Nixon won, heralding a rotten decade in the Seventies when the legislature lurched from corruption to ineptitude, only pulling itself together with Reagan ten years later - hardly the choice of liberal America! It’s easy to see why Estevez sees this as the end - despite the Clinton administration, it's perfectly arguable that to this day the Democrats have been unable to pull themselves into a cohesive whole - but the truth is never as simple as that. Kennedy was no more the answer to all ills than any one man could be, and would have faced enormous difficulties in achieving everything he promised. He would have made progress, but to suggest that all of the US's ills would have been cured by him alone is patently absurd, naive wishful thinking. The old saying about how dying young cements your place in popular culture is never truer than with the two Kennedys. While Jack died still highly regarded, before the various scandals surrounding him were exposed, Bobby died before those who supported him were brought back down to earth by the painful need for compromise when in government. His legend, the essence of which Estevez has captured in this deeply flawed but interesting film, is of what-might-have-been, not the reality of what-probably-would-have-been. As a narrative whole Bobby the film is an undeniable failure, but as a snapshot of emotion at a particular moment in US history, it does its job perfectly.
On first playing the DVD, one has to skip through trailers for Hannibal Rising, The Illusionist and The Painted Veil, and then an advert for M&Ms before reaching the studio logo and Main Menu. This is of a standard design, the film’s score playing over moments from the film playing behind the options, which are Play Movie, Captions and Subtitles, Special Features and Scene Selection (the movie being split into 17 chapters).
The Video presentation is first rate, a nice clear transfer that brings alive what could otherwise have been a rather dull colour palate. The only mild problem - and it's hardly the fault of the makers - is that there is such a difference in quality between the archive footage and that shot for the film that when a couple of scenes flit back and forth between them the difference becomes a little distracting. That's a minor thing though. The Audio is fine, nice and crisp, and unlike the video, the extensive use of soundbites from Kennedy's speeches used as voiceovers works perfectly well within the track as a whole.
Bobby: The Making of an American Epic (27:22)
A decent Making-Of, but largely unremarkable, with actors talking about their characters and Estevez talking about why he made the film. Okay.
Eyewitness Accounts from the Ambassador Hotel (28:00)
A recording of a panel held following a viewing of the film, in which witnesses such a journalist, a student campaigner and even Paul Shrab, one of those who was shot, talk about their memories of Kennedy and the night he died. Most moving is the section in which an almost tearful doctor relates how he saved the life of another member of the panel, and overall this is a wonderful extra, the only complaint being that by necessity of its brief running time it only skims the surface of the stories these people have to tell.
Theatrical Trailer (2:08)
A trailer which suggests rather more narrative cohesion than the film itself has.
Given that this was a pet project for its writer-director, the lack of a commentary track with Estevez is a glaring omission on this disc. As it is, we get a good presentation of a film with one good extra but, like the main feature, one feels the disc is somehow lacking an extra dimension.