The Last Day of Hope
“I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” I said to myself at the devastating end of Bobby: I had no idea how important Bobby Kennedy was to so many people. Intellectually, I understood that his progressive politics were a grand inspiration to millions, but the hope he embodied, the sense that a newer, fairer world was just around the corner and he would lead us to it, and then the crushing loss of that hope when he died, when he was snatched away so suddenly? I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know, and the unexpected shock of abruptly seeing new layers and meaning and human authenticity in a recent past that I thought I knew and discovered I didn’t know at all was plainly harrowing.
And I was utterly unprepared for my reduction to uncontrollable sobbing by the closing credits. The end of the story is an absolutely foregone conclusion — Bobby Kennedy will be shot by an assassin — and so I knew that was coming. What I was not unexpecting was to be so caught up in the characters through which we experience the Kennedy hope and dream and promise that I would share their grief so strongly. I had no idea, too, that Emilio Estevez had this in him, this sublime film, so simple and so luminously powerful, so beautifully capturing the emotions of a moment in time. I’m not sure that Estevez, who wrote the script and directs with great confidence, can have many memories himself of the national mood of the time — he was only six years old when Bobby Kennedy died — and maybe there are elements of fantasy in Bobby, of glossing over the bad or the uncomfortable or the negative and concentrating only on the good, but that’s no bad thing. Estevez explicitly likens this time, this spring of 1968, to our own, highlighting some bare similarities between the two — an unpopular war, cultural turmoil, constitutional outrages, voting corruption — but he doesn’t need to be explicit to say, “There is no one like Bobby Kennedy today. There is no one promising change. There is no one offering hope.” The film’s detractors are already accusing Bobby of being “liberal,” as if that were a crime, as if there were something unAmerican in pointing out injustices and wanting to fix them, as if that weren’t one of the defining foundations of America. Bobby is an unabashedly political film, but it is political because it is about the people impacted by politics.
Not that the film is all about bashing you over the head with political stories. Not everyone we meet is either waving a flag or looking to burn one, though some are. Contained to a single day — the hours leading up to the Kennedy shooting — and to a single place — the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy’s California campaign headquarters — the film weaves in and out of the lives of Kennedy election workers and hotel employees and guests as they do their jobs and live their lives and prepare for Kennedy’s arrival that evening. It’s a Grand Hotel for a more tumultuous time, but where that early 1930s classic completely ignored the Great Depression raging right off its screen, Bobby embraces the turmoil as unignorable, recognizing that even those people who eschew politics are affected by it. For every black Kennedy campaign worker or Hispanic busboy hoping for a cultural paradigm shift — one Kennedy could bring about — toward great racial tolerance, there’s a hotel manager whose own bigotry threatens to strand him in the past. For every young man desperate to find ways to stay out of the army, out of Vietnam, there’s a young woman trying to figure out her place in a world with more options and more dangers.
It’s through these characters — Bobby himself appears only in news clips; there’s no actor portraying him here — that Estevez keeps us in suspense, makes a seemingly predictable story fresh, makes us care. Their simple stories come together in a way that underscores the wide swathes of society that Kennedy inspired; it’s hard to single out one member of the fantastic ensemble — Anthony Hopkins, Sharon Stone, William H. Macy, Elijah Wood, Lawrence Fishburne, and on and on — for special recognition, but watch how Freddy Rodriguez (Harsh Times) takes his kitchen busboy from disappointment to optimism through wholly crushed faith. And it’s through their eyes that we either see for the first time (as for me, and everyone else too young to remember Kennedy) or are reminded of the power Bobby Kennedy wielded — to give people hope again — and the power of his loss. It’s a loss, Estevez implies with distressing, dynamic conviction, that we have as a nation yet to get past.