Bobby (review)

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.

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5 thoughts on “Bobby (review)”

  1. Well, maybe if you had talked to more Baby Boomers–or at least more people who were of voting age when RFK died–you would have known.

    I never fully understood the impact of the Detroit riots until I heard my older relatives discuss them in 1987.

    I never fully understood the impact of the Mexican Revolution until I listened to people who had lived through it–and lost friends and relatives during it.

    No generation is born knowing everything–even though we all would like to pretend that the generation we were born into is the exception.

  2. I never implied that my generation — or any generation — knows everything. But some things simply don’t pop up in everyday conversation… and dead presidential candidates is one of those things.

    Excuse me for not having done exhaustive research before heading into the screening room.

  3. No one really knows certain things unless they experience it. The death of child, the birth of a child, the horror of war, the elation of a great accomplishment, the degradation of prejudices, etc. How you would react, how you would feel. Sure everyone’s felt fear, euphoria, rage, depair, but at what level and how would you react. You may have a good idea but really don’t know. The great movies in my opinion are the movies that push you close to the feelings the actors are trying to portray and to bring you into their on screen experiences. I understand Tonio’s comment but dont think it was a fair assesment or adresses the point I thought you were making. I dont think you fully understand the impact of anything unless you were actually there and sometimes not even then. Try explaining to someone how something tastes without comparing it to something else you’ve eaten. If you don’t actually taste it you really don’t know. Then again, maybe I’m just bored at work and put way too much thought in this.

  4. I’m sorry for sounding so snarky in my last post, but I grew around people who worshipped the Kennedys and I live in a city in which the JFK Assassination took place.

    If MaryAnn wishes to make the point that “Bobby” did for the RFK assassination what “Apollo 13” did for the Apollo 13 disaster or what “All the President’s Men” did for Watergate–humanize a historical event for the benefit of moviegoers who were way too young to understand the importance of such events when they occurred–then I understand.

    But imagine your reaction ten years from now to a young film critic who never realized the impact of Oklahoma City or 911 until after they saw a movie about it and you might better understand my reaction.

    The events we think important today won’t necessarily be remembered all that well by those who come after us.

  5. But imagine your reaction ten years from now to a young film critic who never realized the impact of Oklahoma City or 911 until after they saw a movie about it and you might better understand my reaction.

    Sorry, but I don’t understand any better. It makes perfect sense to me that someone who did not live through a momentous occasion will not understand it in the same way that someone who did live through it does. A well-made movie can help that understanding — why is that so controversial?

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