Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 13 October 2006
Source The Weinstein Company / MGM 35mm print
Its seems fairly evident that a great deal of American idealism expired in the ’60s following the deaths of a handful of men who served as political icons during the period. Perhaps neglected in comparison to the fascination that persists regarding his older brother’s death, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy appeared to signal the eventual demise of the promised peaceful utopia that American liberalism relentlessly promoted as being just beyond the horizon. While the figurative demolition of the Kennedy Camelot probably occurred after the incidents at Chappaquiddick in 1969, RFK’s death provided another demoralizing defeat for the already fragile morale of America’s left-wing, as many mourners were unprepared for yet another wave of suffering and sorrow so soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis just a few months prior. Given the turbulent political climate at the time, sufficiently similar enough to sketch parallels to present-day circumstances, as well as the intrinsic dramatic potential of such a significant event, it’s surprising that Hollywood has avoided the urge to explore this particular episode in American history, especially now that the term “liberal” — which the Kennedy brothers seemed to personify — is in dire need of being reclaimed by the Left after having become a “four-letter word” within the polarized American political spectrum.
Screened at TIFF as a work in progress, Emilio Estevez’s latest film, Bobby, attempts to explore the proceedings of the day on which Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California, but functions as more of an idealized exercise in nostalgia rather than as either an accurate depiction of the day or as a sober expression of filmmaking. Estevez chooses to focus his film on the lives of the ordinary visitors and everyday employees who inhabit the hotel on the day of the assassination, but his actual aspirations are not only to demonstrate the serene optimism that may have vanished in a few fleeting moments due to inexplicably brutal actions, but also to make certain that we understand the comparable conditions reflected within our contemporary political climate. Consequently, by revealing how the situations of the ’60s mirror our current struggles, Estevez hopes to inspire his audience to embrace the ideals once championed by the leaders of a gentler generation of Americans, including the dreams of peace and unity that he believes have laid dormant for far too long. In doing so, Estevez’s recommendations regarding kindness and understanding offer a soft rebuke to the current administration’s stern tactics, but his message is most likely just being preached to the choir. More concerning is that Estevez’s methods are saturated in the type of mushy Liberal-Hollywood filmmaking that modern conservatives routinely denounce as a sign of weakness in the aftermath of recent trauma. Of course, Estevez’s proposal also seems to ignore the collective amnesia routinely displayed by the baby-boomer generation in order to conveniently discard such principles when they may have hindered both national and personal economic growth.
After Estevez treads through a moving mix of archival footage from the era, Bobby begins in the early morning hours of June 4, 1968 amidst a security scare at the Ambassador Hotel, which has obligated the hotel’s occupants and staff to congregate outside in the darkness. Though the crowd is faintly apathetic to yet another panic regarding building safety, there is also a sweltering sense of anxiety in the air that may feel familiar. The scene quickly establishes the heightened sense of anticipation and precaution that accompanies the arrival of Robert F. Kennedy, who is scheduled to stop at the Ambassador in the evening to celebrate another victory in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination after winning crucial primaries in South Dakota and California later in the day.
Estevez uses the brief opening scene to introduce his sizeable cast of characters, providing glimpses of a few familiar faces within the separate segregations of visitors, campaign staff, management, and hotel staff. Among the gathering congregation is the hotel manager, Paul, an ostensibly decent Democrat who is discreetly married to Miriam, the hotel’s resident beautician. We soon learn that Paul is actually engaging in an affair with a switchboard operator named Angela, who is warned by her friend and co-worker Patricia to immediately end the relationship before she endures or triggers any further heartache.
Meanwhile, a conflict begins to swirl between Paul and Timmons, the hotel’s racist catering manager, after the subordinate refuses to grant his minority-heavy staff time off work in order to vote. Timmons cites stereotypical rationales concerning the illegal status and criminal records of most of his kitchen and service staff, which promptly provides Paul ample reason to fire Timmons, ordering him to clean out his desk after completing the catering for Kennedy’s visit. Timmons’ staff includes José, a young Latino man who must give up his tickets to a historic Dodgers game in order to work a double-shift; José’s friend Miguel, who is somewhat hostile and aggressive in his views on racial and social discrimination; and Edward, an African-American cook who, after imparting his wisdom upon his younger colleagues, praises José’s generosity upon being granted the aforementioned tickets. The hotel also employs singer Virginia Fallon, a former celebrity now wrecked by alcoholism, who performs nightly at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Virginia is supposed to introduce Kennedy later that night as long as her husband, Tim, is able to keep her conscious while enduring her incessant abuse.
The preparations for RFK’s arrival include an army of campaign organizers and volunteers, including young leaders such as Dwayne, an aide fiercely determined to abolish all unjust obstacles that may prevent the New York Senator from assuming power. The campaign somehow survives the juvenile antics of Jimmy and Cooper, two junior aides assigned to canvas in neighbouring communities, who instead become preoccupied with experiencing their first LSD trip, encouraged by an increasingly erratic drug-dealer (leave it to Ashton Kutcher to find the most superfluous and infantile role within an otherwise sombre script) and later comforted by a playfully friendly waitress named Susan. Elsewhere, their campaign supervisor frustrates a persistent Czech reporter named Lenka by repeatedly thwarting her attempts to interview Bobby Kennedy on the grounds that she represents a Communist paper. Though he ultimately relents after she specifies herself as a progressive Socialist, one wonders if such an irrational and astoundingly politically inappropriate indulgence isn’t partly due to the famous Kennedy fondness for attractive women.
Also gathering at the Ambassador amidst the commotion that Kennedy is causing are two couples at different points in their respective marriages. Kennedy supporters, Jack and Samantha Stevens are an upper-class Manhattan couple attempting to rekindle their marriage by surmounting his recently diluted depression and her resulting insecurity. Meanwhile a young woman named Diane is opposing her father’s wishes by marrying a classmate named William in order to prevent the young man’s deployment to Vietnam.
Given his recent experience directing various CBS police-procedural dramas, it’s not surprising to witness Estevez capably weave together the stories of more than 20 different characters. Clearly Estevez has acquired a substantial amount of filmmaking knowledge from the numerous years he has spent in Hollywood, both as an actor and director, which have allowed him the ability to craft the type of expressive scenes that his fellow Hollywood peers devour with delight. However, while the scenes may be alluring on the surface, the seemingly poignant drama often feels artificially enhanced by Estevez’s perpetual need to flagrantly affix some form of social significance onto each story.
Indeed, though each story intersects towards the conclusion of the film, the actual resolution of each character’s story is almost inconsequential, especially since Estevez quite obviously crafts each strand of the narrative to simply capture the zeitgeist of the period in some synthetic fashion, without adequately scrutinizing their impending implications. Instead we merely glance at the motions of various cultural movements, including the mounting tensions over race and class that sparked the Civil Rights Movement, the uncertainty that accompanied the increased liberation provided by Feminism and the Sexual Revolution, and the apparent expansion of our collective consciousness via the rise of the drug culture. Estevez also draws a number of direct connections to the current American climate through mentions of “a war no one understands” supplemented with images of deceased soldiers being brought home from Vietnam in body bags, remarks concerning police checkpoints obstructing minority voters from accessing voting polls, as well as allusions to the social and economic discrimination faced by illegal immigrants.
Following screenings of Bobby at festivals in Venice and Toronto, Estevez has earned a considerable volume of acclaim for his successful compilation of the various narrative threads within his film. The pinnacle of this praise may be comparisons to the work of Robert Altman. Other than a faint structural resemblance the association to Altman feels rather inappropriate, as Bobby is much more akin to the artifice of Paul Haggis’ Crash in terms of dramatic tone and content. Altman’s name has become short-hand for any script featuring a multiple-character narrative composed of several vaguely related stories, but the application of his name to any film attempting to remotely emulate his arrangements is becoming mildly insulting. Unlike many of his imitators, Altman’s films somehow calmly ingrain themselves, almost organically, into an entrenched culture and establish a distinctive cadence and tone that captures the surrounding atmosphere. In contrast, Estevez’s film appears to construct its own idealised version of the events, conveniently infused with mawkish moments designed to coax a specified reaction from his audience.
Other than a brief flourish during a drug trip, Estevez’s filmmaking tactics in Bobby are fairly conventional and polished for the most part. Unfortunately, behind its surface sheen, Bobby feels more like a shallow exploitation of our shared nostalgia for the ’60s, particularly due to Estevez’s incessant placing of recognizable cultural references to movies such as The Graduate and Planet of the Apes, as well as Don Drysdale’s bid to pitch six straight shutouts. Even more manipulative is Estevez’s soundtrack, which fastens the most obvious and maudlin pop songs of the era to nearly every significant scene.
Perhaps more troubling than Estevez’s basic technique is the incongruously conservative tendency displayed throughout Bobby. Rather than challenging traditional beliefs, Estevez repeatedly chooses to comfort his audience by reaffirming the bonds of marriage, while weakening the might of the only authoritative female presence within his film. Also, despite Edward’s thoughtful pleas for avoiding aggression while he preaches pragmatism, his sermons to his Latino colleagues verge on becoming both slightly offensive in their display of voluntary cultural emasculation and somewhat naïve in their dismissal of more radical forms of protest. It also doesn’t help that Estevez has Dwayne, a young African-American male, declare Bobby, a wealthy Caucasian male, to be something akin to a saviour.
Despite my grievances, it’s undeniable that some of the numerous passages within Bobby succeed in provoking an emotional reaction. Particularly poignant is a scene between Miriam and Virginia, portrayed by Sharon Stone and Demi Moore respectively, which succeeds precisely because it avoids manufactured lustre in favour of capturing an instance of honesty between its veteran actresses. As Virginia stumbles into Miriam’s salon, soaked in booze, she begins to stammer and yammer on about youth, vitality, and fame before making distasteful remarks regarding a woman’s position within modern society, bluntly declaring the sordid quality of her experience while claiming it to be universal practice. Confronted with Miriam’s wounded facial expression, Virginia quickly realizes her transgression and apologizes accordingly. It’s a vividly candid scene between two actresses usually disparaged for their superficial appeal, mostly because the scene also serves as an admission that their once potent and intoxicating presence may have disappeared in the decade that has elapsed since their most vibrant period of work.
Yet Estevez’s most successful scenes in Bobby are hardly related to his ability to conduct the performances of his actors and have nearly nothing to do with his technical skills, instead relying heavily upon already indelible images and rousing passages of dialogue directly attributable to Bobby Kennedy. Indeed, the most powerful imagery in Bobby is provided by archival footage of RFK during his legendary political career, flickering on the screen while we hear him deliver a stirring speech encouraging us to escape from the tempting clutches of violence and requesting that we instead embrace the warmth of brotherhood. In fact, other than a fleeting glance at the back of his head as he enters the Ambassador, this footage is the only identifiable view we are granted of Robert F. Kennedy.
While the technique of integrating actual images and prose of RFK effectively conveys the dignity and grandeur that the Senator so carefully sculpted and scripted, such a method could also be seen as an abstraction that exalts Kennedy to the status of saint. It’s certainly a practice that should draw the scorn of the few vocal critics that scoffed at a similar strategy applied in Good Night, and Good Luck. At the time, Clooney was condemned for hagiography by allowing David Strathairn to interpret Edward R. Murrow as a distinguished, dignified, and decent man, whereas Clooney prohibited any actor from creating a sympathetic depiction of Murrow’s nemesis, Senator Joseph McCarthy. Instead, Clooney relied upon authentic footage of the Wisconsin Senator engaging in his various verbal assaults, thereby effectively demonizing the Senator by preventing the viewer from adequately identifying with McCarthy’s personal motivations, thus conveying him to be so exceedingly evil that actors were incapable of portraying such a loathsome character. These critics appeared to overlook the fact that Clooney’s film focused primarily upon the occupational environment of its central characters, and when narrowing the scope of McCarthy’s personality to his professional labours, he was indeed kind of a dick.
Nevertheless, the criticism of Clooney’s formal technique carries some merit and can also be applied unfavourably to Bobby, though the results Estevez achieves are the polar opposite of Clooney’s practice. In limiting Senator Kennedy’s presence to archival footage, Estevez essentially conveys the sense that Kennedy is almost too sacred to disrespect with an actor’s interpretation, thus making the Senator into a divine presence among many flawed mortals. Unlike Clooney’s restraint in restricting Murrow’s authority to the CBS News offices, Estevez doesn’t limit the extent of Kennedy’s influence, presenting the Senator as a beacon for an entire society, with an almost infinite capacity to cure social ills and improve the nation in almost every imaginable way.
Estevez’s embellished depiction of Bobby Kennedy as a political messiah represents yet another shrewd deception that Estevez’s target audience will probably willingly accept as conclusive truth based on their own predisposed perceptions. Thus, Estevez takes full advantage of the fact that we are not able to judge RFK on his potential performance as President as we have only been left to romanticize about the promise that he represented. In reality, Bobby Kennedy was probably just as flawed and defective as the many residents of the Ambassador, yet Estevez never seeks to make such a connection. Though Estevez has clearly accomplished everything he intended to with the film he has created, eventually Bobby reveals itself to be just another hollow Hollywood fantasy attempting to provide artificial inspiration via a glossy version of an historic event. It’s really a missed opportunity, as after years of enduring the endless fabrications attempted by the current administration, what would be more welcome and beneficial for a more sceptical generation, would be a small sample of honesty.