In his new film Bobby, writer/director Emilio Estevez perfectly captures how optimism turned to despair on a dime when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy left the stage of the Ambassador Hotel ballroom and was shot point blank on June 6th, 1968. Much of the film’s first three-quarters are filled with the brimming sunshine of a new day dawning. All that though is quickly deflated when word comes out from the Ambassador kitchen that two months after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and less than five years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, another popular icon for change in America was shot dead. The downside though is that I wish Estevez had populated his nostalgia piece with characters that are a little more interesting.
Taking place mostly within the confines of the Ambassador, starting from an early morning phony fire alarm, Bobby follows roughly two dozen people in the hours leading up to RFK’s assassination.
Kennedy campaign staffers (Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon) work out voting issues and follow the polls, while two other volunteers (Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geraghty) drop acid when they should be knocking on doors. A young woman (Lindsay Lohan) is marrying her high school friend (Elijah Wood) so that he won’t be sent to the front lines of Vietnam. A put-upon husband (Estevez) tries to manage his washed-up lounge singer wife (Demi Moore). A retired door man (Anthony Hopkins) reminisces about the history of the Ambassador to anyone that will listen. The kitchen staff, as led by the charismatic head chef (Laurence Fishburne), discusses the racial divide between blacks and Hispanics while a busboy (Freddie Rodriguez) tries to find his way out of a double shift so that he can go to the Dodgers game.
Those pearls of storyline are perhaps the biggest and most relevant of the film’s numerous narratives. Estevez is obviously trying to channel Robert Altman, and while he gets the mechanics right, I don’t really think he gets the tone and subtleties down. A lot of the characters are given a lot of weight and just seem to be there incidentally, like the socialite couple played by Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt, or Ashton Kutcher’s acid peddler. There really does seem to be twice as many characters as needed, and as a result quality actors like William H. Macy as the hotel manager get short changed. Also there’s something about showing how all these characters are before Kennedy’s death and then rolling credits before we get a full sense of the reaction; it just seems that the movie’s missing a final scene.
Having said that though, I think everybody’s firing on all cylinders here, even normally hit and miss actors like Lohan, Moore, Sharon Stone and Christian Slater. (Although it should be noted that I think Kutcher can play hippie stoner dope dealers in his sleep, and Moore skirts the fine line of overacting.) There’s a great scene with Cannon after Kennedy’s been shot that is an absolute implosive mix of rage and hopelessness, it was somehow heart-wrenching and frightening at the same time.
Primarily though, Estevez gets the time and tome just right. He uses sound clips of Kennedy speeches and interviews as a kind of narration to give us a deeper appreciation of those tumultuous times. It’s also a shock to the system for those of us in current times as the film seems to say that Robert Kennedy was the last, best hope for genuine political leadership. He is presented as an icon of equality for all Americans, one who worked against the escalation of a costly war
As a yearbook, as a snapshot of a frenetic and turbulent time, Bobby succeeds beautifully; as a movie it’s better than okay, but its heart is definitely in the right place.