Another election year, another Kennedy movie. Six years ago, when lawyers for Al Gore and George W. Bush were debating the finer points of interpreting dangling chads, Thirteen Days—a riveting dramatization of John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962—came out and reminded us how critically important the right kind of leader could be in an unforeseen moment of crisis. Now comes Bobby, a look at the guests and employees who were at the Ambassador Hotel on the night of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination there in June 1968.
It is tempting to wish that Steven Culp, the actor who gave such a remarkable Bobby Kennedy impression in Thirteen Days, had been brought back for this one; after all, six years have gone by in the real world, just as the new film takes place six years after the earlier one! Instead, writer-director Emilio Estevez maintains a reverential distance from his title character, depicting him only through news footage and audio recordings. Kennedy himself is never integrated into the drama—except for the climactic moments at the hotel, when all we see of him are brief looks at the back of a stand-in's head, like the non-depictions of Jesus in 1950s Bible dramas.
It is clear from the opening and closing credits that Estevez, who was only six years old when Kennedy was shot, wants to depict Kennedy as a sort of savior; Bobby is important to this film not as a human being, but as a symbol of hope cut down in his prime. We are told that he had the power to heal the racial divide, to bring about peace, and no doubt many people saw him that way and still see him that way.
And yet, one cannot help but wonder whether Bobby Kennedy's political life would have turned out like that. I think of how The Queen depicts the huge popularity of Tony Blair after he was elected Prime Minister of Great Britain—and how Blair coincidentally was forced out of power right around the time that film came out. And while no one would say that Bush came into power with that kind of status, it is worth noting how the recent congressional elections reflected an increased disenchantment with his own presidency, even among conservatives. So if Kennedy had indeed become President of the United States, he might have been the answer to everyone's prayers—but he could just as easily have let them down.
Savior figure? What about his disciples? This is where the film's real drama lies—or should I say dramas, plural. The film is a far-flung, wide-ranging, intricately woven ensemble piece boasting a cast of dozens, in which the hotel serves as a microcosm of the very American society that Kennedy aims to lead.
Let's start with the employees. The kitchen itself is a cauldron of racial tensions: it is managed by a white man named Timmons (Christian Slater), who is prone to making culturally inappropriate comments; the head chef is a black man named Robinson (Laurence Fishburne), whose stated views on race relations may or may not match his actions; and many of the staff are Latino, at least one of whom (Jacob Vargas) is very vocal about the advantages that both whites and blacks enjoy, as he sees it.
In contrast to the youthful agitation in the kitchen, we also see a couple of older men—one white (Anthony Hopkins) and one black (Harry Belafonte)—who meet at the hotel for games of chess, bouts of nostalgia, and gentle ribbing. Hopkins, who is also one of the film's executive producers, offers an interesting study in particular of a man who was once so defined by his work that he cannot think of anything better to do with his free time now than to fantasize that he is still on the payroll.
Other vignettes explore the place of women in American society at that time—and it is striking to consider that a few of these characters are played by actresses whose careers stalled around the time they turned 40, which in its own way may reflect how Hollywood continues to treat its male and female stars rather differently.
For example, Helen Hunt plays a socialite who obsesses over her wardrobe, to the bemusement or consternation of her husband (Martin Sheen). Sharon Stone plays a beautician named Miriam whose husband (William H. Macy), the hotel manager, is cheating on her with one of the switchboard operators (Heather Graham). Miriam's clients include a young woman named Diane (Lindsay Lohan)—who, against the wishes of her family, is marrying an old friend (Elijah Wood) to keep him away from the front lines in Vietnam—and Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore), an alcoholic singer who is emotionally abusive to her husband Tim (played by Estevez himself).
Meanwhile, the Kennedy campaign itself exudes its own brand of less-than-perfect humanity. Despite the candidate's seemingly inclusive idealism, the highest-ranking of his aides that we encounter is Wade (Joshua Jackson), who consistently rebuffs a Czechoslovakian journalist (Svetlana Metkina) and her requests for an interview because it would not look good for Kennedy to hobnob with a Communist. And while all the other young volunteers are out knocking on doors and encouraging people to vote for Kennedy in the California primaries, Jimmy (Brian Geraghty) and Cooper (Shia Labeouf) get a wee bit sidetracked when they meet a hippie drug dealer (Ashton Kutcher) who offers them some LSD as a way of "getting closer to God."
None of these smaller stories is all that impressive in its own right, but together, they add up to a remarkable portrait of a particular time and place, and by the time Robert F. Kennedy himself arrives at the hotel, we have a good sense of why, exactly, everyone looks up to him. We also come to realize that it is in the lives of individual people—as individuals and communities—that ideals are ultimately lived out or betrayed, and the moment of Kennedy's assassination is remarkable for how it puts all that came before it into a new perspective, one that even sees opponents coming together out of a renewed prioritization of their own shared humanity. Bobby may not make the case for its messiah as much as it would like to, but on its own terms, it is a reasonably moving portrayal of a society in need of salvation.Discussion starters
- What do you make of the religious references in this film? Are they just a joke? Do they reflect the sincerity of the time when the movie is set
- The drug dealer asks his clients, "What are you looking for?" Pick a character and try to imagine how he or she would answer this question. Is everyone in this film looking for the same thing? Whatever they are looking for, are any of them looking in the right places
- Virginia Fallon says, "We are all whores, all of us. Just some of us get paid." Why does she say this? How does it square with her treatment of her husband? How is this theme reflected, or not, in the film? Is her comment limited to women, or is it reflected in the male characters also
- How does this film portray virtue and noble character? How is it reflected not only in a political hero, but in the everyday characters
- What about the characters who are not so noble? Do they have their noble sides? How does, say, Timmons relate to his staff, before and after he is fired? Does firing him make him a better person, or make him relate to his staff better? How have humiliations in your own life affected you and your relationships with others?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Bobby is rated R for language (about a dozen four-letter words and another half-dozen uses of God's or Jesus' name in vain), drug content (especially involving three characters and an LSD trip), and a scene of violence (the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy). There is also some rear male nudity in the LSD trip scene.
Photos © Copyright The Weinstein Company
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/30/06
Emilio Estevez takes a turn as director for Bobby, a film celebrating the life and convictions of Robert F. Kennedy. And he has a lot of talented actors helping him out—from Anthony Hopkins to Elijah Wood.
But according to most Christian film critics, Bobby is not nearly as inspiring as a film about RFK should be.
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says that the film's "rambling, purposeless storylines and stereotypical characters … ultimately disappoint."
"Bobby is less concerned with its title character than it is with teaching 1960s history," says Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk). "What we get is a 'highlight reel' of late-sixties turbulence set to the most obvious period songs imaginable … . The film's biggest surprise is that the end result is so banal."
Mike Smith (Past the Popcorn) says it's "an inventive but embarrassingly sentimental re-enactment of Bobby Kennedy's assassination. … [The film is] a slow moving, syrupy quasi-sermon about what made Bobby Kennedy great in the minds of those who knew him."
Taking a different approach than the majority, one Christian media personality seized this occasion to attack Bobby Kennedy directly, saying that his message amounts to "empty political platitudes." And he claims that the movie will "lead many people astray, morally, politically and theologically" with its "false Romantic, Neo-Marxist liberal ideology and … rhetoric." He begs us to protect our "family, friends, children, church, [and] country" from this movie.
Mainstream critics manage to focus on the movie itself, and they're not terribly impressed.