After Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, the nation mourned the loss of a brilliant, charismatic politician. The era’s struggles feel sharply relevant to today’s national issues: involvement in an unpopular war, error-prone voting mechanisms and immigration tensions.
As politically timely as “Bobby” is, what resonates most from the film is the personal impact Bobby had on a generation of Americans that was inspired by his optimism and sincerity, and was devastated by his death.
Emilio Estevez, writer and director of “Bobby,” worked on the movie for nearly a decade. He collected film records of race riots, Vietnam footage, strikes and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to plunge the viewer into the sights and sounds of the civil rights era.
Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel serves as the film’s centerpiece and backdrop, housing the 22 characters (played by Hollywood’s A-list) whose lives converge around the assassination. It’s a good thing all the actors are so recognizable (standout performers include William H. Macy, Freddy Rodriguez, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone and Anthony Hopkins) because none of them get enough screen time to form a solidly recognizable persona. Just as Bobby himself is presented through snapshots, so are these smaller dramas of unhappy marriages, extramarital affairs, political ambition, racial identity and growing up.
The result is understandably scattered, but of all the storylines, only one feels detached and useless. The troubles of a wealthy couple (Helen Hunt and Martin Sheen) fail to inspire sympathy when held up next to the depictions of immigrants working for minimum wage.
Other personal narratives contextualize the larger issues of the film, with a diverse cast to give every viewer a point of entry into the story. Young, old, married, single, male, female, black, white, Hispanic — Bobby’s appeal is illustrated through the range of his supporters. To watch “Bobby” is to come away longing for another politician like him: energetic, decisive, articulate and natural, who campaigns on policies and interacts with real citizens.
As sprawling as the character-introducing montages feel, the movie picks up momentum once the story threads start to come together, building with dread to the moment after Bobby clinches the California nomination for president. On June 5, 1968, Palestinian Sirhan B. Sirhan made his way into the kitchens of the Ambassador Hotel and shot Kennedy, wounding five others.
Cinematographer Michael Barrett used deft camera work, actual amateur footage from that night and recreated crowd scenes, making the pivotal scene feel chillingly real. The most famous photographs of the assassination (a white-jacketed busboy cradling Bobby’s body, weeping mourners) are momentarily recreated, making every effort to integrate Estevez’s fictional construction with the actual historical records of the tragedy. As a narrative film, “Bobby” is shaky at best, but the last half hour of drama is heart-rending enough to make up for earlier flaws.
“Bobby” is a chance for the words and actions of an inspired politician to move people of a generation who can’t remember where they were when Kennedy was shot. Bobby’s words of hope and equality are tucked in between domestic scenes, in the background noise of a hotel room and on a tiny radio in a bustling kitchen. They pervade the entire film and feel just as powerful and relevant as if Bobby himself had appeared yesterday on CNN and said, “This generation cannot afford to waste its hope.”
“Bobby” was written and directed by Emilio Estevez.
“Bobby” received three stars.