There are people out there who will criticize writer director Emilio Estevez’s Bobby. I’m not one of those people.
Bobby is an extraordinary movie for a number of reasons. For starters, you know within the first few frames what Mr. Estevez is doing. He wants you to absorb the legacy of the Robert F. Kennedy. He wants you to hear the late senator’s words. He wants you see his face in old footage, where the man is often seen gracefully interacting with the people of 1968, all of whom appear to have hung their very last hopes on Kennedy’s idealism.
A captivating outing from beginning to end, it includes an all-star cast that ignite most every scene they occupy—and, who, apparently worked for almost nothing to get the project off the ground. What Estevez has created is effective not because he’s documenting every nuance of the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, but because he’s captured a mood, through these characters, of an era that bares a haunting resemblance to the one that’s unfolding in 2006.
The only one glaring difference: Even in the midst of ’60s turmoil—Vietnam, Martin Luther King’s assassination, protests et al—the majority of the populace still had hope that things could change. That, and, as some would argue, that people still gave a damn.
Using 22 fictional characters, all of which happen to be in the L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel the day Kennedy nabs the California primary, nearly paving the road to the White House, Estevez flips the Kennedy story inside out. We’re not watching what’s happening to him, per se. We’re witnessing the lives of others—their current challenges, some of their ideologies, their hopes, their despair, their triumphs, their prejudice, their world, all on the eve of the assassination.
Glimpses into the lives of most of these characters often come clustered. There’s Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte as retirees reflecting back on life—Hopkins is a retired doorman who can’t seem to let go of the Ambassador Hotel; Belafonte wonders why he’s forgetting things. Hopkins, always alluring, particularly stands out here because he fully owns his role. There are some moments where the delivery of his dialogue is so free, so void of “acting” you’d just assume be sitting next to the man in a restaurant it’s so real.
William H. Macy is the hotel manager, a man carrying on with a sexy hotel operator played by Heather Graham. Sharon Stone—by far one of the most affecting performances here because she seems to know how to offer more by giving less—plays Macy’s wife, a woman who’s accepted her fate working in the hotel’s beauty salon.
Estevez uses the hotel kitchen as his portal for prejudice. Christian Slater is a bigoted boss here who won’t let his Latino staff out of work to vote. Meanwhile, Laurence Fishburne is the sous chef, a man who’s absorbed King’s message by meeting the prejudice thrust upon him with loving detachment. Jacob Vargas, as a beleaguered busboy, doesn’t warm up to Fishburne so he warns his fellow coworkers that someday the whites will fear Mexicans as much as they do Blacks. (And you’ll also note other fascinating forshadowings, particularly footage of Kenndy speaking to children on the effects of pollution.)
The film’s soul appears to come in the form of Freddy Rodriguez, another busboy who’d rather attend the evening’s milestone Dodger’s game. Through him, we’re able to see the possibility of a brighter road ahead even though he knows that walking that road could bring challenges.
Demi Moore—downright tragic here but affecting—delivers as a faded celeb Virginia Fallon, who’s scheduled to introduce Kennedy at the primary party. Estevez plays her weary husband.
As for the youth of day, there’s Lindsay Lohan—she’s marrying a man (Elijah Wood) to prevent him from heading to Vietnam. Ambitious campaign aides (Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon) fend off a Czech journalist (A brilliant Svetlana Metkina). And two newbie campaign volunteers (Brian Geraghty and Shia Lebeouf) distract themselves via Ashton Kutcher’s Christ-figure, a drug dealer.
That leaves Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt, two East Coast socialites trying to rekindle their marriage. Watch how Hunt effectively captures a housewife too afraid to confront her emotions—or reality for that matter.
For the most part, the interweaving of these characters works. Although some would argue Estevez goes a bit over the top with a drug sequence, it manages to tighten the bigger late-’60s tapestry.
In between, Estevez takes his audience away from the fiction by punching up the mood with fact. Vintage footage of Kennedy campaign is injected at various points, creating a much needed depth to the picture. (And … when was the last time you actually saw genuine hope in eyes of a person as they watched a potential presidential candidate walk by them? You don’t find that sort of emotion in the faces of the public today. If might be there, but the media hasn’t captured it.)
While you get the sense Estevez is saying: It was a different America but it is the same America today, you’re apt to feel some sort of void within, your mind wandering off to places, asking: When was the last time I believed in something; in someone?
Aside from the emotion the film tends to evoke, we are watching, technically, a work of fiction. And as stories go, this is not a bad one at all. By the time the final scenes unfold, you’re actually witnessing Estevez’s take on Kennedy’s final moments in the Ambassodor’s kitchen, where he was gunned down. Fittingly, at least here, Kennedy falls into the arms of Rodriguez.
Behind the scenes, there were a few curious twist worth noting. Estevez, who was only 6 years old at the time of Kennedy’s death, had been struggling with writer’s block after taking on the project more than six years ago. Hoping a change of scene would help, he checked into a Pismo Beach hotel. The woman behind the front desk recognized him and inquired as to what he was doing in town. He mentioned he was writing a script about the day Kennedy died. The woman looked at him, teared up and told him she was there at the hotel; that she had been a Kennedy volunteer and married a young man to keep him from going to Vietnam. Something sparked. Estevez would later find himself interviewing the woman and using her story as a framework for Lohan’s character.
He completed the screenplay one week before another American tragedy—9/11.
*** ½ (out of four)
With Harry Belafonte, Nick Cannon, Emilio Estevez, Laurence Fishburne, Brian Geraghty, Heather Graham,, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Lindsay Lohan, William H. Macy, Demi Moore, Freddy Rodriguez, Martin Sheen, Christian Slater, Sharon Stone and Elijah Wood.