Ensemble history lesson brings the Vietnam era into sharp focus
Directed by Emelio Estevez
Cast: Charlie Sheen, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, William H. Macy, Anthony Hopkins
I was born in 1968, that pivotal year in which American innocence curled up and died alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Most of my memories of that history-making time, quite naturally, revolve around sleeping, crying and staring at breasts. (Which, come to think of it, isn't all that different from my memories of freshman year at college.) Others, of course, have much more vivid recollections of the era.
Bobby, the new film from Emilio Estevez (yes, that Emilio Estevez), tries and succeeds most admirably to capture the mood of 1968: the hope, the despair, the dashed expectations of a nation on the verge of cataclysmic change.
Revolving, ostensibly, around the June 6 murder of presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the ensemble film checks in with nearly a dozen characters, all tangentially connected to the events at hand. Interestingly, the film doesn't try to dramatize Bobby, his killer or anyone directly attached to the historic assassination. Instead, the film begins 16 hours before the fateful moment, sending its camera drifting among the assorted men and women gatherered at the Ambassador.
Some are there because of Bobby. There's the proud delegate (Martin Sheen) and his fragile wife (Helen Hunt). There are the Young Democrats (Shia LeBeaouf and Brian Geraghty) charged with firing up Los Angeles voters for that day's pivotal primary. There's the young black activist (Nick Cannon) feeling the first stirrings of political hope for his people. Then, there are the folks for whom the Ambassador Hotel is simply an everyday prospect—this day no different, so they think, than any other. There's the boozy, washed-up singer (Demi Moore) holding on to her last shreds of glory in the hotel's showroom. There's her husband/manager (Estevez, slipping a bit of acting in amid his writing/directing debut), weighing how much of his own dignity he's willing to surrender for his spouse's career. There's the hairdresser (Sharon Stone), listening to all the gossip from her station in the hotel salon. There's the friendly busboy (Freddy Rodríguez), who just wants to escape from the bowels of the hotel so he can attend a crucial Dodgers game. There's the aging doorman (Anthony Hopkins), who can't quite seem to wrap his head around the concept of retirement. There's the selfless high school grad (Lindsay Lohan), marrying an innocent classmate (Elijah Wood) to keep him out of the Vietnam War.
All these people, whether they realize it or not, are tied to the events that we, the audience, know are inevitable. By day's end, Bobby Kennedy—the last great hope of the Vietnam era—will lie bleeding to death on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador.
Estevez, who obviously took his time creating this dream project, has crafted an impeccable story. Bobby Kennedy isn't exactly a character in the film, but he appears throughout in actual news footage of the day, reminding us exactly what he stood for and what he believed in. It's a smart move. No actor could express RFK's beliefs quite as elegantly as the man himself. Listening to his assorted speeches is either a sharp reminder (for those who lived through it) or an instant history lesson (for those who didn't). This man could very well have been president, and it's eerie to think how different our world might have been if he had lived to implement even a fraction of his hopeful plans.
But Bobby isn't so much a political biopic. It is, instead, a multi-angled snapshot of a single day in American history.
The (largely fictional) stories Estevez chooses to focus on are gripping, dramatic and even occasionally amusing (our two Young Democrat volunteers, for example, decide to spend the fateful day taking their first LSD trip). The cast is nothing short of astonishing. (You can throw Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy and Christian Slater into the already impressive roster.) Despite the sheer number of characters, the film never feels like an overstuffed Altman project. The pace is measured and intimate, and the inevitability of the conclusion hovers over it all, giving the film a palpable tension.
Everyone involved does fine work--even those whose résumés can be decidedly up-and-down. (Stone, for example, wouldn't look at all out of place in the Best Supporting Actress category at this year's Oscars.)
There are moments—fleeting ones—in which Bobby verges on preachy. The film stops just short of sanctifying the man, and some of the film's racial discussions threaten to stretch into speeches. There's no way of knowing what Bobby Kennedy could or would have done for America had he survived. And racial discussions rarely sound like college debates. Fortunately, even the most political stories in Bobby are rooted in the personal, making these stories believable and heartfelt despite the occasional editorial moment. Walking out of Bobby it's impossible not to feel what the man stood for, and—perhaps more importantly--what people wanted him to be. The dashing of those hopes is perhaps the most enduring legacy of the ’60s—a legacy that Bobby brings home with drama, humor and simple elegance.