Last night I attended a screening of the Emilio Estevez passion project Bobby, which tells the stories of a large group of characters who were at the Ambassador Hotel that fateful day Robert Kennedy was shot. Estevez himself introduced the film, saying it was inspired by a conversation he had with Roger Avary about runaway production. Perhaps playing to the industry audience, Estevez made an impassioned plea on behalf of his friends who work on the technical side of filmmaking, whose careers have dried up in their mid-thirties thanks to all the productions filming outside of Los Angeles, especially in Canada.
Estevez, who wrote and directed Bobby in addition to starring in a small role, made no mention of the legacy of RFK and what it means for the time we’re in. Once the movie began, however, the archival footage of Bobby offering hope to impoverished coal miners and images of Vietnam body bags made clear that analogues to present day politics would not be avioded. (The spectre of hanging chad even rears its head at one point.)
But what is surprising is how light is Bobby‘s touch. Until the powerful and moving ending, we are invited to live and laugh with a rainbow of characters, and to celebrate the simple pleasures of work. Most of the characters are working men and women, just trying to get through what promises to be a long and hectic day, Bobby Kennedy having made the hotel his campaign headquarters. Bobby is the rare assassination pic in which there is no conspiranoia. Sirhan Sirhan appears on the periphery once or twice, while the main action of the film seems to be about two square campaign volunteers who shirk their door knocking to drop acid for the first time.
There are many more stories: the hotel hairdresser (Sharon Stone) discovers her husband, the hotel manager (William H. Macy) has been cheating on her with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham). A complicated racist kitchen manager (Christian Slater) is not the only character who gives this sprawling ensemble film the feeling of Crash. He forces his Mexican busboys (Freddie Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas) to work double shifts and lets the black chef (Laurence Fishburne) have the night off. Shia LaBeouf, Joshua Jackson, Ashton Kutcher, Elijah Wood, Lindsay Lohan, Demi Moore (in full Norma Desmond mode as a debauched lounge singer), and so on…
Bobby makes plenty of novice mistakes in terms of writing and staging to be sure — the natures of Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt’s characters are not made clear until too late in the game, and Harry Belafonte’s character is never made clear; many scenes lack conflict, or contain cloying dialogue (“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” says one kitchen worker, invoking Malcolm X’s line about Plymouth Rock without actually making any sense). Estevez’s use of the camera and sense of pacing is pure working stiff. Still, the ending!
If this movie receives any awards attention, it will be because its climax so beautifully illustrates the randomness and senseless waste of violence. Although Estevez and his editor allow the voiceover of Bobby’s speech at Martin Luther King’s funeral to prolong the montage of chaos beyond the point of wistfulness, it doesn’t matter. The images that he shows of a hotel thrown into chaos are as simple and profound as haiku.
Bobby is not a great movie. But it has a great amount of heart to it. The choice to have Bobby played entirely by archival footage is not forced into some Forrest Gumpian sleight of special effects, but simply left to its own artifice. While it’s clunky to cut in grainy eight millimeter footage with lavishly appointed period movie footage, it doesn’t ever invoke Brechtian distancing. Instead it serves to remind us that Bobby was a real person, and his loss was a real tragedy.
In some ways, this film is two years too early. What we need for the next election is another Bobby, a candidate who is willing to withdraw from a worsening conflict while inspiring Americans across ideologies to believe in themselves and their country once more.