He was a young man who could bridge the gap between both black and white, young and old, haves and have-nots.
–Laurence Fishburne, “Bobby: The Making of an American Epic”
Here’s a message that got trampled on, but it’s alive in all of us, every day. And if, for one brief moment in the theater, we can reinforce that message for people, the world can be a better place.
–Mark Isham, “Bobby: The Making of an American Epic”
Throughout “Bobby: The Making of an American Epic,” Emilio Estevez and collaborators on the film (actors, composer Mark Isham, set designer Patti Podesta, Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, and Bryan Adams) articulate their passions. As they pronounce in various ways for this documentary, included on the new Bobby DVD, they’re committed to the film, to the “community” it imagines, to the memory and promise of Robert Kennedy. Earnest and mostly eloquent, they embody why this movie seemed like such a good idea. They remind you that, even if the movie occasionally trips over itself in its efforts to do good, the dedication to doing that good is both poignant and admirable.
No surprise, the differences in their commitments and comprehensions have to do with their own experiences. Lindsay Lohan approves of her specific character Diane’s decision to marry a young man to save him from being drafted; Isham describes the overriding politics of the process: “What a great opportunity for a composer, or any artist, especially the movies that perhaps don’t pay as well. You’re doing it for other reasons. You’re doing t to be part of a community of artists who are saying something of value.” While Estevez and his father Martin Sheen underline the damage done by the loss of RFK, Harry Belafonte puts it in another perspective, saying, “What happened was, I think, the series of assassinations destroyed the fabric of this country’s belief in itself.”
Such variations — even in relation to what seems a particular moment in history, 4 June 1968 — help to shape Bobby, a commendable film if to a great one. Set for the most part in L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel on the day Kennedy was assassinated, it tracks separate stories as they overlap and sometimes collide. Kennedy serves here (as he certainly does elsewhere) as a symbol for what might have been, as Bobby illustrates the problems he cites in archival footage shown on televisions and providing background sound. Some of these illustrations are literal: when Kennedy laments the Vietnam war, the film provides an instance of a young hotel patron recently drafted; his frustration with ongoing, institutionalized poverty and racism finds shape in the experiences of black and Latino kitchen workers at the Ambassador.
The film’s most effective moments however, leave behind such heavy-handed framing. Individual scenes are frequently enchanting, if only for the keenness of several performers (especially William H. Macy, Sharon Stone, Lohan, and Nick Cannon). Premised on a progressive moral argument rather than a narrative with rising and falling action, the film ends as you know it will, with the assassination, and more specifically, with the famous image of the busboy cradling Kennedy’s head.
At its start, the film introduces this figure, José (Freddy Rodriguez) as he begins his workday in the Ambassador’s kitchen, establishing at least one connection with recorded history. José is disappointed almost as soon as he arrives at the hotel, learning that he’s been assigned a double shift without his knowledge, and so he”’ be unable to use his tickets to the Dodgers game that evening, the game that will become Don Drysdale’s sixth consecutive shutout.
Resigned to his fate, José is spurred to increasing resentment by his friend Miguel (Jacob Vargas). Seated round a table with other kitchen workers, Miguel spouts off in front of their boss, Edward (Laurence Fishburne). “We’re the new niggers,” Miguel declares. “Better get used to it.” Edward looks bemused and understanding at once. “You’ve got a right to your anger,” he tells Miguel. “I had anger, after Dr. King was killed, anger like you can’t even imagine.” But still, Edward argues, Miguel must do his job, and specifically, he must do his job for Edward, who demands efficiency and dedication. While they all know racism is hateful and infuriating, Edward explains the strategies he’s developed for getting what he needs while allowing “white folks” to feel “like they’re the great emancipators, like it was theirs to give in the first place.”
Miguel continues to fume, but Edward is right, too. There’s no immediate remedy for prejudice and abuse in the small space of the Ambassador hierarchy, or even in the layout of neighborhoods in L.A. The kitchen staff grumbles and rolls their eyes at the bullying and blatantly racist catering manager, Timmons (Christian Slater), who doesn’t want to give any of them time off to go vote in the day’s primary. Why bother, he reasons, as most of them are illegal and can’t vote, while the others will use the time to engage in less productive activities, because those Mexicans, they’re all the same.
When hotel manager Paul (Macy) catches wind of Timmons’ behavior, he fires him on the spot. At first, he appears a decent guy, even noble as he takes this stand in the name of workers he doesn’t actually see during the day. But Paul has his own troubles, as he introduces one of several stories in the film that focus on marital woes. His wife Miriam (Sharon Stone) works as the hotel hairdresser, happy enough to chat with her clients as she combs and cuts their coifs. Her insistence that Paul is a good husband and father is put to a test when she learns of his affair with a hotel switchboard operator (Heather Graham). The fact that she’s voicing her belief to the alcoholic singer Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore) makes for a pointed comparison of injured women: Virginia has been fighting with her husband Tim (Estevez) throughout the day. “People come to see me because they love me,” she slurs, spectacularly. “If I want to have a fucking drink, then I’m going to have a fucking drink, because I deserve it.” Tim, holding their lapdog, looks aptly beleaguered.
These meltdowns — at least one destined to be reframed by the assassination — is inverted by the renewal of devotion experienced by the anxiously insecure Samantha (Helen Hunt) and her gentle, depressed, and very wealthy husband Jack (Sheen). The most hopeful plotline concerns the upcoming marriage between William (Elijah Wood) and Diane. Over the course of the day, they find they’re also falling in love, the film prettying up the political point the couple is making — the war is wrong, and they mean to reject it in any ways they can.
Other “youngsters,” less evidently politicized perhaps, but resisting institutions in their own way, include two Youth For Kennedy workers (Shia LeBeouf and Brian Geraghty). Seeking “good times” with the help of a drug dealer staying at the hotel (Ashton Kutcher in a funny wig), they’re embarrassed when they enter his room. “What are you really looking for?” asks the long-haired Fisher. With that, he offers up sugar cubes with drips of enlightenment, accompanied by the clichéd soundtrack choice of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”
Painfully sincere, Bobby includes the expected youthful idealists as well, in the form of a local team of buoyant Kennedy volunteers, headed by the very dedicated Wade (Joshua Jackson). He and his second, Dwayne (Nick Cannon), discuss their dreams for the future, even as Dwayne, like Edward, remembers his heartbreak over Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination just two months earlier.
While these many plots vary in effectiveness and banality, the finale — Kennedy’s arrival the hotel and the violence that follows — is undeniably moving (even if the use of “The Sound of Silence” is, again, clumsy). As the crowd gathered in the ballroom sees all too plainly, hopes run up against disappointment abruptly.
The DVD’s most compelling extra, though too brief, is a recollection of that day in the ballroom by an assembly of activists and political workers. “Eyewitness Accounts” includes Dolores Huerta, co-founder and First Vice President Emeritus of the United Farm Workers of America, and journalist Ruth Ashton Taylor. Their memories of Bobby, Cesar Chavez, and the energy of the time are thrilling. As they do, Bobby looks back with sadness and frustration, drawing clear connections to current events (the war in Iraq, troubled elections, continuing racial tensions). But they also bear hope. As reporter Warren Wilson remembers, “That would have been less of an impact on me, had I been shot [as he nearly was], than Kennedy being killed, stopped, in a moment in America’s history, when we needed him and his advocacy more than ever before.”