Preachy but worthwhile
By Lady Liberty
** out of ****
It can't possibly come as a surprise to anybody reading this that I'm not much of a fan of Kennedy politics. But whatever your own position on that particular issue, it's impossible to separate some seminal moments of American history from the Kennedys. Certainly everyone old enough to appreciate the significance of the death of a president can tell you where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas; and though he wasn't president (yet), the assassination of JFK's younger brother Bobby five years later created much the same historic significance.
Emilio Estevez was only seven years old when his politically active father Martin Sheen (who was very much a fan of Kennedy politics) brought him to the Ambassador Hotel where RFK was killed. Despite his youth, the impact of the visit wasn't lost on him. When he visited the old Ambassador a few years ago in the course of another project, he became determined to finish something he'd long dreamed of doing: telling the tale of that fateful June day when the leading Democratic contender for president was killed.
All of Bobby takes place in the Ambassador Hotel on June 6, 1968. The hotel served as Kennedy's campaign headquarters for the California primary election, a contest he had to win if he was going to be the Democratic nominee for president. The combined optimism and desperation of campaign workers and the demands on the hotel staff were almost literally chaos on virtually every level. A pair of retired gentlemen who spend their days chatting and challenging each other to chess in the hotel lobby — played by Harry Belafonte and Anthony Hopkins — watch events unfold from the sidelines. The hustle and bustle offers both a little added excitement, and causes Hopkins' character to reminisce about visits from other famous persons during his tenure as a doorman at the hotel.
What is merely interesting to them is a razor's edge to the hotel manager. Paul (William Macy) is worried about everything from the catering to the ballroom decorations. If that's not enough, he's also concerned that all of his overwhelmed employees who want to vote have the opportunity to do so. The kitchen manager, Timmons (Christian Slater) cares about nothing but that the food service goes smoothly. His lack of concern and his apparent racism push Paul over the edge, and the ensuing argument between the pair colors almost everything they both do for the rest of the day.
Paul's wife, Miriam (Sharon Stone), works in the hotel beauty salon. Though she's very much looking forward to an appearance by Senator Kennedy later in the day, she's busy taking care of other women who have concerns of their own. Pretty bride-to-be Diane (Lindsay Lohan) comes in for a manicure and ends up confiding in Miriam that she's marrying not for love or money, but to save the life of a young man (Elijah Wood) who might otherwise be headed for service in Viet Nam.
A pair of campaign workers decide at the last minute to skip out on the chore of going door-to-door to get out the vote and to have a good time instead with a local hippie (Ashton Kutcher). An eastern European reporter (Svetlana Metkina) tries repeatedly to schedule time for a brief interview with Kennedy. Boozy singer Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore) and her long-suffering husband, Tim (Emilio Estevez) fight, drink, and prepare for a show that evening during which she'll introduce the Senator to an appreciative audience.
Hispanic kitchen staff grumble about being forced to work double shifts, but they hustle to get the job done all the same (most interactions center on actors Freddy Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas). A black chef (Laurence Fishburne) gives and takes some teasing and complaints from other workers. A middle-aged married couple (Helen Hunt and Martin Sheen) visiting from the east try to save their marriage even as she worries about what to wear for the campaign event that night. Paul, meanwhile, steals furtively away to spend a few minutes with his mistress, a hotel switchboard operator (Heather Graham).
Through all of this and more, the seminal moment we all know is coming gets closer and closer. With snippets of the personal stories of some 22 principals providing a loose setting for later events, Estevez facilitates many edits between scenes by inserting archival film of the real Kennedy. Brief cuts from various of his speeches; short scenes of adoring crowds attending rallies or standing street side along his route; dozens of handshakes with supporters; and serious moments where Kennedy speaks not to the camera but to America as a whole serve to show with surprising effectiveness both the troubles of the day and the popularity of the man many believed could solve those problems.
As I said, I'm no fan of Kennedy politics. But given the time, the war in Viet Nam and the unemployment at home, the undeniable charisma of Senator Robert Kennedy, and the love many had for him even apart from politics, there's little question in my mind that he was a force that would likely have overwhelmed any opponent come election day. There's also no question in my mind that, for better or worse, the shots fired in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel late that night changed history.
Estevez took on his shoulders an incredibly difficult story and he chose to do it in what may have been the most complicated method imaginable. But his hard work paid off, and whatever hardships he may have endured in the past or behind the scenes don't show in the completed film. There are a lot of side stories here (at least one of which seemed to be completely unnecessary), but I believe Estevez chose to tell the story this way to show how very different people living very different lifestyles were all brought together in a moment of blood and terror, and I think his choice was a reasonable one.
Estevez, by all accounts, struggled to write the script. He dealt with a serious case of writer's block (he finally left town and holed up in a hotel where — in a bizarre and fortuitous coincidence — he met a woman who was actually at the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was shot); he somehow cajoled an astounding array of stars to participate; and then he had to direct disparate characters who would somehow all come together in a single moment of commonality that would change all of them forever.
With this kind of a cast, it almost goes without saying that the acting is good. But even in a cast like this one, there are a couple of stand-outs. Freddy Rodriguez is upbeat and innocent despite hardship, but he's soon to lose it all. When he does, he doesn't speak a word, but you see it all in his face and in the set of his body. That's acting. Sharon Stone is pretty, but in a more brittle way than we typically see from her. We know nothing about her but this one day of her life, and yet her tone, her expressions, and everything about the way she behaves tell us that she's not had it easy. It takes a brilliant actress to pull that off, and she does it effortlessly. Demi Moore is also especially good in a performance reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor's Virginia Woolf.
But the cast is also the cause of my strongest criticism of Bobby. In trying to tell so much, it gives short shrift to everything. We care less than we should about most of the characters because we're given too little time and information to become attached to any of them. Time limitations are also doubtless the reason that little commentaries on sexism, racism, and civil rights are far from subtle. I can't speak for anyone else, but I personally dislike being preached to or hit over the head with a hammer, and some lines do just that.
Still, Bobby is a good concept, and has if nothing else the topic and the editing to match. With its attention to costume and set details (portions were actually filmed in the Ambassador Hotel just before it was demolished) on top of those things, Bobby is able to bring to a new generation a very good idea not only of what happened more than 35 years ago, but of how it felt when it did. Good for Mr. Estevez.
POLITICAL NOTES: I was too young at the time to much appreciate Bobby Kennedy's champaign rhetoric. Hearing it via the archival footage, though, was truly sickening. His promises virtually all involved socialism of one sort or another, and certainly significant increases in government scope and authority to go along with it. Promises to withdraw from Viet Nam got the support of many (much as Democrats promised voters to find a way to leave Iraq in this year's elections); promises for entitlements for the unemployed, underemployed, and uneducated got the poor solidly behind him as well.
Had Kennedy been elected — and he probably would have been — this country's freedom, sovereignty, and economic well-being would have been in grave danger (not that it's not today, mind you, but a President Robert Kennedy would most assuredly have gotten us there much sooner). Kennedy's part in his brother's disastrous Bay of Pigs incident also can't be minimized, and his general attitude as Attorney General certainly goes to show as well what kind of president he would have been.
Estevez — and I think this is to his credit — presents the story very much as it's told in history books. He never so much as alludes to the accusations of CIA involvement or conspiracy involved with the RFK assassination (and there are some very good reasons those exist, by the way). But whether they're mentioned or not, the very direction of Kennedy's primary political thrust certainly gives a blunt rationale for existence of such theories: Kennedy's promises, whatever words they were couched in, all effectively vowed a redistribution of wealth. And though nobody deserves a bloody assassination whoever pulled the trigger, it's impossible not to feel some gratitude that at least Kennedy was never elected president as a result.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Bobby is rated R. Young children will have no appreciation for either the various stories or the historic import of the overall topic anyway. But older children could very well benefit from some of what they'll see here, particularly if parents are willing and able to put it further into context for them. Though portions are bloody, and some various marital discord is less than pretty, I don't believe any are so graphic that even relatively young teens couldn't see them. Certainly some racial commentary is uncomfortable, but once again, more good than harm would likely be done by hearing such things especially in the company of a parent. I recommend Bobby with some reservations accordingly.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at