332 – Bobby

It’s tough to make a movie about 1960s America nowadays. Any documentary or encyclopedia entry on the decade will note that its final years were “turbulent” or “chaotic” and that there was this grand coming together of various revolutions – cultural, political, sexual. Things Happened in the late 1960s. Change was Effected. Gone was the bland, colorless 1950s lifestyles that Ma and Pa Kettle loved, the workaday, nothing-changes lives, a time when you could expect things to go as they always had. But once all of these changes began to occur and people from different walks of life found they had things in common with strange, exotic people, the result was a hodge podge of everything that made America unique in the world. With such a potpourri of dizzying issues, any movie about the period is sure to fall short.

This is not the case with Emilio Estevez’s brilliant Bobby. Bobby follows the lives of 22 disparate people during the weekend of June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles – the time and place of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination shortly after a campaign speech – their interactions with each other, and how each is affected by Kennedy’s presence that weekend.

Perhaps intentionally, Estevez’s film pays homage to Robert Altman’s classic Nashville, which used the same ensemble-cast formula and was centered around a political speech and musical concert. Estevez wisely never follows one character for too long, lest we think the focus is on anything but the overarching theme of Change. He also doesn’t swoop in for close ups of his many stars, opting for a much more realistic portrayal. The camera follows an actor as he or she moves into a new room, rather than being in the room as he or she enters. That sort of thing.

But here’s where the movie is incredible genius. We know what happens. We know exactly how the movie is going to end. It’s not a mystery; everything builds up to Kennedy’s murder. And yet somehow, we’re still stunned, absolutely thunderstruck when it happens. No! Not Bobby! Why? Why? I mean, I wasn’t even around in 1968, and I was first captivated and then devastated by the senselessness of the killing. Bobby Kennedy, the film tells us, was more than a political candidate. He was a true unifier, a man who honestly felt bad about all the crap that had happened, the seemingly endless war in Vietnam and the intracountry violence that threatened to really tear the country apart. He campaigned not on the coattails of his martyred brother’s legacy but on his own strong ideals and compassion. Everyone, it seemed, loved Kennedy – whites, blacks, Hispanics, rich people, poor people, the distaff middle class, everyone. Except, of course, for his eventual killer.

The cast features a lot of big names. Anthony Hopkins. Demi Moore. Martin Sheen. Christian Slater. Sharon Stone. Lindsey Lohan. Elijah Wood. Some are better known for their offscreen exploits nowadays, some haven’t had much of a career in years. But Estevez manages to eke out some tremendous, galvanizing, gut-wrenching performances from everyone. Seriously, not one insincere note is sounded; there’s no hamminess, no vamping, no divas, no egos. It’s an acting clinic. You forget these are big Hollywood stars and can almost believe everyone’s a nonactor who happens to be really, really good.

Above all, even with his audience knowing the precise ending, Estevez never takes away that which audiences hold most dear – hope. The assasination of Bobby Kennedy was crippling to many in 1968, and by extension the viewing audience in 2006, but even his death could not destroy the hope of getting past the bad times. When Bobby is over, you feel like you’ve been socked in the stomach by your dog. But then you look at your dog, and your dog looks at you, and you realize it’s gonna be okay after all.

****

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