1968 was arguably one of the most turbulent years in the second-half of the 20th Century for America. Race relations deteriorated after the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, a wild presidential race included a violent Democratic convention in Chicago, generational conflict and drug-use were at an all-time high, and the escalation of the Vietnam War piled bodies higher as protests and opposition to the protests increased. President Johnson just gave up. No doubt, it was the peak of “The Sixties.”
Into this mess of seemingly unsolvable conflicts came a bright, shining candidate, a late-entry into the presidential race. Senator from New York, former Attorney General, and brother to the late President, Robert F. Kennedy seemed the last hope for America. Able to embrace the disenfranchised, the liberal establishment, and the anti-war youth, he seemed destined to unite America as the next President of the United States. In early June, all he needed to do was win the Democratic primary in the state of California. From those electoral delegates, he should easily win the party’s nomination and then go on to defeat Republican Richard Nixon, a job his brother had done just eight years earlier. After all, who in their right mind would want to vote for Nixon in 1968?
Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Kennedy claimed victory in the main ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and exited to the kitchen followed by scores of well-wishers. There he was shot to death by an assassin. A half-dozen others were wounded. Clearly a terrible moment in U.S. history.
A new film, “Bobby,” written and directed by Emilio Estevez, depicts a series of mostly-fictional events in and around the Ambassador Hotel on the last day of the life of Bobby Kennedy. We don’t really see the candidate himself, except in vintage news clips, voice-overs, and out-of-focus shadows; instead we focus on a score of fictional characters each with their own reasons for being in the Ambassador, not all related directly to Kennedy.
Lindsay Lohan is a young woman who has agreed to marry Elijah Wood to keep him from being sent to Vietnam. Anthony Hopkins is the retired doorman who hangs around the lobby all day with his friend Harry Belafonte playing chess and reminiscing about all the famous and interesting people they met at the hotel in their day. Martin Sheen (Estevez’s real life father) and Helen Hunt are prominent donors to the Kennedy campaign who have flown in from New York to be with him at his triumphant moment, yet the two seem to have different social priorities. Demi Moore is a famous singer who is booked for an exclusive engagement at the hotel yet she drinks to forget how her career is going down the toilet. Emilio Estevez (yes, he acts in the movie too) plays her husband who’s been playing second-fiddle to her for too long.
The hotel’s manager is played by the always-amazing William H. Macy. He’s married to Sharon Stone, the hotel’s hair-dresser, but he’s having an affair with Heather Graham, one of the hotel’s switchboard operators. Christian Slater plays the food services manager. A bigoted racist, he doesn’t want to let the kitchen staff off to go vote in the election. The kitchen staff includes the African-American head chef played by Laurence Fishburne and two Latinos, Freddy Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas. Because of the fancy party for Kennedy, the Latinos have to work double-shifts; this is particularly cruel to Rodriguez’s character because he has tickets to that night’s Dodgers game in which pitcher Don Drysdale is going to attempt to break a record and throw his sixth consecutive no-hitter. (It is an interesting coincidence that such a key moment in sports history occurred in the same city only hours prior to Kennedy’s assassination.)
Shia Lebouf and Brian Geraghty play two low-level Kennedy volunteers who are supposed to knock on doors to encourage people to vote for Kennedy but instead decide to take the day off and have their first experience with LSD, bought from hippie dealer Ashton Kutcher. Nick Cannon and Joshua Jackson are higher level campaign workers hoping for the best for America and that perhaps there might be a spot for them in the new Kennedy administration. And Svetlana Metkina plays a reporter from a Czechoslovakian newspaper hoping to get an interview with Kennedy but keeps being rebuffed because she is from a Communist country. (For those too young to remember, the Czech Republic and Slovakia used to be a single country called Czechoslovakia, prior to 1992.)
Whew! Got em all? Too many characters? Maybe. And that’s a shame because, just like in the last film I reviewed, “For Your Consideration,” they weren’t as well developed as they could have been if they had been given more screen time. But which ones would you eliminate? They all seem to have some purpose for being there in examining the life and death of Kennedy. A cross-section of America. Or at least Kennedy’s supporters, which was quite diverse. This is certainly an ensemble piece, but some characters are more interesting than others and some of the story-lines are better developed than others.
Naturally, a film about the assassination of a Kennedy begs comparison/contrast to that great film of the 1990s, Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which—in all fairness I better admit this bias right away—happens to be one of my five favorite films of all time. That said, like Stone’s film, “Bobby” shows the effect that Kennedy had on the people of the country, people who cared about him, people who’s lives were altered because his policies were not put into place. But unlike Stone’s film, Estevez’s movie does not ask the big political questions. It doesn’t ask who shot him and why. (All we see is a brief glimpse of assassin Sirhan Sirhan walking into the hotel.) Estevez chooses, instead, to focus on these fictional characters and that, in my personal view, is a detriment. But that certainly doesn’t mean that the movie as a whole fails. Indeed there are some very emotional moments, particularly toward the end, and we do learn something important about this moment in history and the effect Kennedy had on the people of the time.
But if all history is really about the present, what does this movie set in 1968 have to say about 2006? Quite a lot, you might not be so surprised to learn. There are a number of moments where the voting system is scrutinized and comes up wanting. This issue may have come to high public prominence after the extremely close 2000 election, but apparently there was voter fraud and improprieties back as far as 68. There’s even a brief (and in retrospect comical) reference to the hanging chad. The movie deals a little bit with issues of immigration, currently a hot topic. Also, the drive to get the US out of the quagmire of Vietnam has many overly-clear parallels to the quagmire of Iraq, today. And universal themes like marital infidelity, aging, and generational conflict still resonate today.
In the end, does everything fall into place? Is everything resolved? Not quite. It’s not a perfect film. But, at least to my knowledge, Estevez has done something quite new here, and for that he must be given much credit. He’s taken a genre—the ensemble piece, like dozens of films we’ve seen in the last several years—and brought it into a moment of history, and made it into a period piece. And the dark moment he chooses—when such optimism is suddenly changed into dark despair by a few gunshots—is a moment that is important for us to remember.
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