It is neatly ironic that Emilio Estevez should release his Robert Kennedy film within several days of the death of storied film director Robert Altman. For in its structure, intent, and effect Bobby is more similar to Altman's Nashville than any other political film he could have made on the subject. And it bears no relation at all to Oliver Stone's JFK. And the film is not about Robert Kennedy in the way that Stone's film was about John Kennedy.
Although there are many news clips of Kennedy in the film, the main action all takes place at the Ambassador Hotel on the last day of the California primary, June 4, 1968. This was the primary Robert Kennedy had to win in order to win the nomination at the Democratic convention. As in Nashville, there is no main character in the film. The picture episodically depicts a number of people's lives in that one day as they sometimes interact at that famous, and now perished, hotel. The people who Estevez tracks in the film (he was both the writer and director) are all fictional. And in fact, as we shall see, this fictionalization extends as far as the actual RFK assassination. The characters include: black and Hispanic workers in the kitchen, a fading nightclub singer and her manager/lover, a middle-aged couple having a mid-life crisis, two young Kennedy workers who flirt with a waitress and then go on their first acid trip, a news reporter from Czechoslovakia, a former doorman and his friend, a kitchen manager, his boss and the boss's wife who has a hair salon in the hotel, two phone operators -- one who is having an affair with the aforementioned married boss -- and a couple of young RFK managers who hope to get plum assignments when Bobby becomes President Kennedy.
As the reader can see, Estevez was not interested in the actual events surrounding the RFK murder. In fact, in interviews he has explicitly stated he was not out to make any kind of "Oliver Stone conspiracy picture." That was his option of course. But what has he given us instead? And what does his film intrinsically achieve on its merits?
Aesthetically, Estevez does all right. As a director he keeps his camera in the right place most of the time and he understands that given the confines of the story, he needs a camera in motion much of the time to avoid a feeling of stasis. He does this dexterously enough, very seldom did it call attention to itself.
Primarily known as an actor, Estevez has assembled a large, ensemble, all-star cast including Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Demi Moore, and his father, Martin Sheen. Considering the brevity and sketchiness of the parts, most of them do OK (although I could have done without Ashton Kutcher as an acid dealer). One performer in the cast who is really extraordinary is Sharon Stone as the hair dresser wife. From her make-up (I wasn't sure it was her until about halfway through the film), to her voice, demeanor, and her ability to register sharp emotion effortlessly, she reminds us of the special and rare abilities that make the mystery of re-creation possible.
One of the achievements of Nashville is that it communicated the feeling that the country, in its go-go and hustling egocentricism had itself created -- actually demanded into existence -- the urban microcosm that Altman was presenting. And one of the ways he did this was the deliberate intersection of the political strands of the story with the entertainment/music/Movieland strands. Altman dramatized this with the culminating assassination, which is not of the politician running for office, but a C&W superstar singer who has been urged to stage a campaign rally for him. (And we see retroactively that this had been planned by political operatives for political purposes.) The underlying message being how shallow and callous -- and ultimately demeaning -- both the political and artistic culture of America is.
Although it tries, Bobby never attains that kind of overarching cultural or sociological relevance. Part of this is because the individual stories never really accrue to anything larger than themselves. In fact, some of the situations are simply banal: the philandering husband-manager, the faded, alcoholic Judy Garland-type singer and her entourage, the foreign reporter who wants to get her career-altering interview with the future president. Also, when Estevez tries to strain for some real poetry in the scripting e.g. a situation between a black kitchen worker and a Chicano, or a tender moment between the middle-aged couple, the writing becomes strained. Both in itself, and in the context of the characters.
Almost as if he realizes his story strands are weak, he tries to give the whole scenario both timely characteristics and a parallel to the present. There are mentions of the two iconic films of the day i.e. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. (Estevez actually uses "The Sounds of Silence" from the latter's soundtrack toward the end.) One of the parallels is with a new voting system instituted at the time which has, of course, "chads." But he mentions these matters, and that is about as far as they go. They never build into an intricate, multi-layered mosaic as the Altman film did.
And that is surprising, since Estevez took such artistic license with the actual facts he does depict. For instance he has Sirhan entering the Ambassador Hotel as if he was a man on a mission, which is not accurate. He got there that night by serendipity, thinking there was going to be some kind of Jewish rally in the area. Estevez then has him go almost directly to the kitchen pantry. So there is no drinking the four mixed drinks at the bar, and no coffee with the crucial and infamous Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (who is nowhere to be seen here). Then in the assassination scene, Sirhan appears to be wearing an outfit like a kitchen or maintenance worker instead of the actual casual street clothes he had on that night. Which, when added to the other revisions, suggests that Sirhan committed first-degree murder. Further, the other shooting victims besides Kennedy are not the actual people who were shot, but the Estevez-scripted fictional characters. So in addition to the fictional characters the film tracks through the main body of the action, the culminating event also becomes something of a fable.
Which would be acceptable if it all built to something. For me, it didn't. After the assassination climax, the film ends with the surviving characters mourning Kennedy and the other victims as they are carried out and then driven out of the hotel by ambulances. As we watch them in various states of emotional disarray, first we hear the Simon and Garfunkel standard. Then Kennedy's voice comes on the soundtrack and he gives one of his usual idealistic and emotional calls for America to realize its ambitions and promise. The speech goes on for quite awhile, interspersed with black and white documentary footage, and then the film ends. I was puzzled by this rather attenuated, operatic, and didactic closing. (It reminded me of Spike Lee's similarly simplistic and undramatic ending to another dream project, Malcolm X.) If a film is meant to epitomize an era, if it is going to try and mark a milestone -- which Estevez has clearly stated was his intent -- then the close of the film has to somehow suggest or delineate the milestone in some clear and potent way. With his wacky assassination gone awry, Altman tried to sum up just how screwed up American had become after Vietnam and Watergate. In Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney tried to parallel the specter of McCarthyism with today's similar specter of terrorism. His concluding message, Edward R. Murrow's prophetic speech, was that television was crippled at its outset from telling the truth about either. In American Graffiti, George Lucas achieved this marking effect beautifully and unforgettably with his final scene of the friends at the little Modesto airport wishing one of the main characters goodbye. After the plane disappears into the sky, we learn through a photo montage what happened to the four friends afterwards, and with that knowledge, what happened to America. And the brevity and understatement of that final denouement made the impact even more emotionally jarring. We realized that what we had really seen was the end of the early innocent sixties, the Camelot Years of President John F. Kennedy. For those of us who had lived through that dreamy era, Lucas's ending had the impact of a gut punch.
What Estevez is working with here is the era that followed JFK's murder: the angry sixties of 1964-68. And clearly, 1968 was the end of that era. Politically, Kennedy's murder would lead to the destruction of the Democratic party as we knew it, the ascension of Richard Nixon, and the coming apart of America over Vietnam. Socially and culturally, RFK's assassination would lead to the "psychedelic sixties" of hard rock, grass, and legions of "drop-outs" who sub-consciously realized the last hopes of a great decade had ended at the Ambassador Hotel. This final vestige of the sixties would dramatically assemble itself the following year at the gigantic Woodstock demonstration: the final dying spasm of a generation registering its protest over its loss of control over it own destiny. So clearly, Estevez had a huge and magnificent historical subject. For all the liberties he has taken, and for reasons stated above, he didn't do it justice.
The Ambassador Hotel, scene of RFK's assassination, was torn down in early 2006. For a lively discussion of the hotel and its fate, check this Ambassador Hotel Blog.