I fully intended to see Bobby in the theater but somehow got distracted by the cornucopia of other films that were released at about the same time and never got around to giving it a chance. I may have tried harder had not the reviews been distinctively mixed. “Oh come on,” I told myself, “It was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Drama. It has to be worth the time.” But still I delayed until it slipped from the theaters and my grasp.
So when the DVD hit the streets, I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. What I discovered made me doubly ashamed. Bobby— this maligned, ignored and overlooked film—was simply magnificent and had I seen it sooner, it would have easily have ranked among my favorite films of 2006.
Robert Kennedy’s life was understandably overshadowed by his better-known brother, John. But when the Senator and former Attorney General decided to run for the presidency himself, he launched a dynamic, charismatic campaign that turned him into something closer to a rock star. Speaking to those Americans most marginalized and overlooked, Bobby touched those on the margins and inspired others to do the same. He inspired a country mired in the morass of war and social upheaval. Winning the state of California was crucial for his bid for the Democratic nomination; without success there, he’d have to drop out of the race.
On the night of June 4th, 1968, while staying at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Bobby gave a televised speech in which the nation learned he had indeed won the state and was well on his way to occupying the same Oval Office once held by his slain brother. Mere minutes later, while he walked through the hotel’s pantry on his way to a waiting car, Bobby himself was shot in the head by a Palestinian radical upset over his pro-Israel policies. Hours later, he joined his brother John as an American political martyr.
While Bobby may appear to be about the last hours of Robert Kennedy’s life, it is, to be more precise, about the lives of all those who chanced into his path that fateful night, and, unknown to them, converged at the Ambassador for a execution. Bobby encompasses a gigantic cast of characters, and marks time with a deliberate, methodical and luxurious rhythm that allows us to truly get acquainted with the ensemble cast before the action begins. Each character becomes nuanced and multi-dimensional, an extraordinary feat in a cast this size. When the assassin’s bullets begin to fly, we grieve not only for the fallen statesman whom many considered this country’s last great hope, but also for all those caught in the crossfire, mingling their blood with his.
Ambitiously striving to identify with as large a social strata as possible, the film does a transcendent job of evoking a place and time in which, for the briefest of moments, America seemed to be poised on the cusp of something truly wonderful. This is a film about the old and the young, one race vs. another, the committed and the “checked-out,” men and women, beginnings and ends, the birth of love and its ultimate demise. Using a rich textual pallet, the film lets us into the world of illegal Mexican immigrants and posh playboys, dedicated activists and drug-addled hippies, blue-collar workers and draft-dodging boys. But all are brothers and sisters; all are Americans.
Bobby throbs with tremendous contemporary relevance, addressing the enmeshment of this country in a widely unpopular war, the injustice of the political process, and the desire to run from life’s problems into the all-too eager embrace of drugs. Kennedy was seen as a man who had the power to inspire the country out of his problems. He himself is never portrayed except in news clips intercuts. Rather than giving his characters gushing lines about Kennedy’s brilliance, Estevez simply lets the man speak for himself in long, uninterrupted clips. The result is pure revelation. Had not a mad man taken his life, Robert Kennedy would surely have won and this country’s course would have been radically altered for the better. (I am struck by the parallels to the campaign of Barak Obama—both men in their forties, both Senators, both seen as uniters of race, both running during a time of upheaval and seen as a means to honorably withdraw the United States from an unpopular war.)
Who knew Emilio Estevez had anything like this within him. Doubtless drawing off of the rich liberal activist heritage of his father, Martin Sheen, Estevez has made a film of measured power and bountiful depth. Bobby is both riveting and contemplative, an animated snapshot of an America not all that different than the one through which we slog each day. And not without the same glimmer of explosive hope.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It is a delight to come to a forgotten or overlooked film and discover something precious and beautiful within. If, like me, Bobby snuck past you during its theatrical release, don’t let it happen again.