Bobby: Ensemble Tale about Robert Kennedy Assassination

The shadow of Robert Altman looms large over Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby,” a large ensemble-Grand Hotel-like epic, set at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968, when Presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Applying the Altmanesque paradigm of a multi-layered narrative with multiple plots and 22 speaking characters, writer-director Estevez has borrowed from the master’s seminal 1975 “Nashville” the notion of the entertainment-political complex (many of the characters are, or wannabe, in showbiz). He seems to be specifically inspired by Altman’s L.A.-set saga “Shortcuts,” and Altman’s dissection of the class structure in his British period mystery, “Gosford Park.”

Other obvious influences derive from Paul Thomas Anderson’s two ensemblers, “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia, both set in LA; the former in the porn industry of the late 1970s, and the latter in the San Fernando Valley. I will not be surprised if Estevez has also watched the Warren Beatty-Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo,” which takes place in L.A.’s Beverly Hills, a few months later than “Bobby,” on the eve of Nixon election to Presidency in 1968.

Finally, the movie recalls last year’s Oscar-winning “Crash,” which specifically deals with race relations, but also offers an epic-ensembler, in which disparate characters are united by one major event and its various ricochets.

I mention all of these cinematic references to suggest that “Bobby” evidences a huge gap between Estevez’s level of aspiration and level of accomplishment. While his heart may be in the right place, lack of sharp screenplay (which tends to drag and is often trivial) and lack of visual skills (the film looks pedestrian) undercut what could have been a better picture.

Even so, considering his ambition and relatively lack of directorial experience, Estevez should be at least commended for trying, even if he ultimately acquits himself better as director than as writer. Collaboration with a more professional scripter would have made “Bobby” a more socially resonant film.

Produced by the Weinstein Company, “Bobby” received its world premiere at Venice, played as a gala presentation at the Toronto Film Festival, before beginning its platformed release in late fall (NY and LA November 16, then wider release in late November).

“Bobby” re-imagines one of the most explosively tragic events in American history, the fateful night that Robert F. Kennedy, then Presidential hopeful, was shot. By following the stories of 22 fictional characters in the Ambassador Hotel that night, Estevez and an accomplished cast forge an intimate mosaic of an America careening towards a moment of shattering change. In the course of one long day’s journey into the night, all the characters navigate prejudice, injustice, chaos and their own complicated personal lives, after seeking the last glimmering signs of hope in Kennedy’s idealism.

Ultimately, the film’s strongest aspect is its effort to show the eternal American dilemma of self-orientation and personal gratification versus serving the collective at large. Thus, what unifies the necessarily episodic structure and disparate characters is the struggle to bridge the prevailing gap between the personal and the political domains (which, by the way is one of the most consistent themes in John Sayles’ work).

While exploring the diverse experiences of “ordinary” people, “Bobby” celebrates the spirit of Robert Kennedy as an extraordinary man. Serving as a snapshot of this emblematic time in history, the interwoven human stories in “Bobby” combine fact and fiction, myth and fate.

Unlike Oliver Stones (“JFK,” “The Doors,” and even “Nixon”), Estevez is not sentimental about the loss of innocence and idealism. The tone of “Bobby” is more elegiac than nostalgic in suggesting that 1968 (which also saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, another tumultuous event referenced in the picture) might have been the last year, in which most Americans wanted to believe in something bigger than themselves, and that somebody was a charismatic leader.

The film begins its imagined recreation of that catalytic day just a few hours before Kennedy’s assassination, as party-goers, performers, hotel employees, and campaigners descend on the hotel in preparation for the big night.

The yarn’s persona can be divided into several distinct sub-groups. The Hotel’s vet employees are represented by the retired doorman John Casey (Anthony Hopkins), who can’t seem to leave his old haunt behind. Waiting eagerly to greet Kennedy and his entourage, he reminisces about the past, plays chess in the grand lobby with fellow retiree Nelson (Harry Belafonte), who himself has hard time accepting his advanced age and deteriorating health.

Paying homage to MGM’s Oscar-winner “Grand Hotel “(with Garbo, Barrymore, Crawford), Hopkins plays an updated variation of the role memorably inhabited in 1932 by Lewis Stone (Remember his motto, “people come, people go”). Harsher critics of “Bobby” might even dismiss it as big-screen version of TV’s “Love Boat.”

The hotel’s current manager Paul Ebbers (William H. Macy) is a kindhearted but flawed businessman, with considerable temper and double standards, cheating on his wife Miriam (Sharon Stone), who’s the hotel’s hairdresser and in whose parlor some of the female protags congregate. I wish Estevez showed more humor in these scenes (the whole movie is too bleak and borderline pretentious) and would have borrowed from George Cukor’s opening scene (also in a beauty parlor) of the comedy “The Women.”

Down the line, there’s Angela (Heather Graham), the stifled hotel switchboard operator, hoping that her affair with Ebbers would lead to a significant promotion, to the dismay of her black co-worker Patricia (Joy Bryant), an honest woman who’s also single and lonely, initially that is.

At least one third of the narrative is set in the Ambassador’s most strategic locale, the kitchen, a site where tempers flur and barbs exchanged not so much due to work pressures, but from interracial tensions. Like “Crash,” “Bobby” shows racism that’s both explicit and implicit. The place is supervised by bigoted boss Timmons (Christian Slater), a white man, of course, but dominated by various ethnic minorities. The learned sous-chef Edward Robinson (Laurence Fishburne) is black, and the workers are Latinos like Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), Miguel (Jacob Vargas), and the coffee shop waitress Susan (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), newly arrived from Ohio, hoping, like many other girls, to become a Hollywood star. Jose would rather be watching the night’s pivotal Dodgers baseball game than be at the hotel.

The harshest character, with the filthiest mouth among the hotel’s guests is the alcoholic singer Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore), scheduled to sing before introducing Senator Kennedy at his California Primary Party. Walking around with her bottles (half empty), she reminds her frustrated husband Tom (Emilio Estevez) who’s the family’s bread-winner in one bickering encounter after another–until he explodes in scenes that recall “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (Note the similar ring of Moore’s name, Virginia Fallon).

Then there’s a young bride-to-be (Lindsay Lohan), who’s about to marry a man (Elijah Wood) in order to save him from going to Vietnam. Lo and Behold, the more the couple interact, the more they realize that maybe there’s room for a more honest, emotionally driven wedding.

They are contrasted with a depressed socialite from the East Coast (Martin Sheen, Estevez’s real-life father), and his much younger wife (Helen Hunt), who are in California on a strained second honeymoon. Son Emilio has not favored his father and, in fact, he and Hunt play the film’s weakest parts. Obsessed with forgetting to bring black shoes to match her black dresses, she talks endlessly about her wardrobe, then goes shopping–and continues to talk about her shoes.

Estevez finds interesting ways to blend the hotel’s personnel and guests with the political workers who deep down, in their selfish conduct, are not much different from the aforementioned sub-groups conduct. We meet Kennedy campaign followers and young aides Wade and Dwayne (Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon).

Not neglecting the journalistic profession, there’s the persistent and aggressive Czech journo Lenka (Svetlana Metkina), who insists she is a socialist, not a communist, when confronted with charges that reflect American ignoramus as well as bigotry (this is after all 1968).

The campaigning day of novice volunteers Jimmy and Cooper (Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf) is radically changed, when they run into a drug dealer (Ashton Kutcher, in his first movie with real-life companion Demi Moore), who initiates them into the infamous acid trip experience.

In most episodic, fractured narratives, some stories are more compelling or better acted than others, and “Bobby” suffers from that too. Critics are not supposed to interfere with editing, but I think that the yarn could be easily tightened up by cutting down the LSD-trip subplot, the folksy chats over chess between Hopkins and Belfonte, and the psychobabble marital talks between Sheen and Hunt, Estevez and Moore.

As the day progresses, each of the 22 characters encounters and tries to conquer various battles–between sexes, races, and social classes. Struggling to resolve their personal despair and public hope, they all converge on the ballroom for Kennedy’s speech, one of the most resonant statements in American political history.

Perhaps Estevez’s shrewdest move as a director is not to cast any actor to play Robert Kennedy. We get wonderful glimpses of the young, handsome, charismatic and energetic Kennedy, his election campaign platform and new-found commitment to Americas dispossessed (in the post-1963 era, after brother John was assassinated) through excellent newsreel footage, seamlessly integrated into the yarn, particularly in the dramatic final assassination sequence.

Nearly forty years later, Kebnnedy’s speech is still poignant, reverberating strongly in our collective consciousness. Watching the film, you can’t help but think, what if Kennedy were not assassinated What if he did become a president Would the Vietnam War last another seven years Would we have the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars today

As a tribute to the estimable Senatorand to Estevez’s honorable effort–I’d like to conclude this review with Kennedy’s final speech, June 5, 1968, one of the most hopeful and stirring in American history: “What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis. And that what has been going on with the United States over the period of the last 3 yearsthe divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, whether it is between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or over the war in Vietnamthat we can start to work together again. We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running.”

End Note

“Bobby” was presented in Venice Festival as a work-in-progress, though Estevez said that only the final credits and a theme song performed by Aretha Franklin still needed to be added.