An ambitious, laudable, but uneven attempt to convey American hopes and anxieties on the day leading up to Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Emilio Estevez’s Bobby employs an all-star cast to underwhelming effect.
On June 4, 1968, the date of the California presidential primary and a day after Andy Warhol was shot, Kennedy was murdered by Sirhan Sirhan at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. Bobby follows 22 people’s lives in the hours leading up to the killing.
Retired doorman John Casey (Anthony Hopkins) loiters in the hotel lobby, trying to lure his old friend Nelson (Harry Belafonte) and anyone who passes into a game of chess; A Latino busboy (Freddy Rodriguez) bemoans working a double-shift and missing a baseball game, while his friend (Jacob Vargas) reluctantly swallows advice on racial inequality from a sous chef (Laurence Fishburne); the food manager (William H. Macy) cheats on his hairstylist wife (Sharon Stone) with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham) and sacks his kitchen manager (Christian Slater) for not permitting his workers time off to vote; a depressed businessman (Martin Sheen) struggles to relate to his insecure wife (Helen Hunt); a young woman (Lindsay Lohan) prepares to marry a friend (Elijah Wood) to save him from the Vietnam draft; Kennedy campaign staff (Nick Cannon, Joshua Jackson) plan their candidate’s victory speech, while two others (Shia LaBeouf, Brian Geraghty) score LSD from a drug-dealing hippy (Ashton Kutcher); a Czech journalist (Svetlana Metkina) persists in her efforts to secure an interview with the senator; and an alcoholic diva (Demi Moore) lashes out at her emasculated husband (Estevez).
Easily Estevez’s biggest film to date as a director, Bobby’s Altmanesque weaving of individual storylines, connected solely by the characters’ temporary proximity to RFK is brave, but frequently too heavy-handed to bear comparisons to a film like Nashville. Yet despite the sense of foreboding that necessarily accompanies the narrative from the start, the film is refreshingly, sometimes gauchely optimistic about American liberal idealism, quite unlike Altman’s oeuvre.
Kennedy is only seen from behind or in news footage, a tangential, messianic paradigm of what a leader might be, yet the film successfully conveys the hope and frustrations he embodied for many people. Footage of body bags from Vietnam, race tensions and black voters barred from the electoral polls in Watts provide clear contemporary resonance.
But Estevez’s storytelling lacks perspective, as he bookends emotionally weighty scenes with trivial ones, often making his characters speak in cipher-like platitudes. The presence of so many stars is an effective shortcut to establishing a character’s importance, but as yet another door opens with yet another famous face behind it, a degree of triviality seeps in, undermining the film’s seriousness. Several of the narrative strands, such as Sheen’s and Hunt’s, have a soap opera inconsequence, while Fishburne’s worldly wise cook appears to belong to another movie entirely. Nevertheless, his exchanges with the excellent Rodriquez and Vargas represent some of Bobby’s best moments, while as a fading, failed wife, Stone eclipses several of her more illustrious co-stars.
Notwithstanding a closing bum note where Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ plays over one of Kennedy’s speeches, a song too closely associated with The Graduate and emblematic of the film’s often clunkingly obvious temporal scene-setting, there’s a real emotional heft to Bobby’s final scenes, and not just from the passionate depiction of this nation-changing event and RFK’s moving oratory.
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