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6/4/68, And You Are There, Sort Of

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Trailer for "Bobby"

Emilio Estevez’s Bobby is, in its way, one of the most ambitious American films within recent memory. This is so despite the movie’s confined setting and very restricted time frame.

It takes place over less than a day, June 4, 1968, in the Hotel Ambassador in Los Angeles. This was the day of the 1968 Democratic presidential primary, which was won by New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy over Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, 46 percent to 42 percent.

Just after midnight of that day, after addressing a crowd of supporters in a ballroom, Kennedy was cut down in a kitchen pantry by a bullet from a handgun fired by a young, Palestinian-born man. He died the next day.

Estevez’s movie isn’t a semi-historical recreation of the events leading inexorably to that assassination. He’s designed Bobby as something smaller, but at the same time intended to evoke the spirit of that tumultuous, sometimes frightening time, “…a year of political and social turmoil,” as an on-screen message informs us, somewhat didactically, at the movie’s start.

Bobby tries to convey what all this felt like to people then. Estevez weaves in and out of incidents that day in the lives of 22 fictional characters, a carefully deployed cross-section, whose presence at the Ambassador is variously either connected or unrelated to the election.

The movie tries to create a dynamic microcosmic mosaic of American society at that crucial moment as it obliquely works its way down to the wrenching denouement. There are the two young Mexican-American kitchen workers (Freddy Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas) who spar over the plight and prospects of abused Latinos in this country. They’re counseled by the shrewdly calm black chef (Laurence Fishburne) about the advisability of patience and cleverness when dealing with Whitey. From another social stratum Estevez introduces an affluent, middle-aged, East Coast couple (Martin Sheen, the director’s father, and Helen Hunt) suffering spiritual maladies. In the Ambassador’s back offices there is the liberal manager (William H. Macy), who is having an illicit affair with a much younger switchboard operator (Heather Graham) despite his love for his wife (Sharon Stone), the beauty parlor proprietor. And so it goes.

At its very best, Estevez’s expansive embroidery of glimpsed lives and facts has just a little bit of the flavor of a larger-scaled, cruder version of Jean Renoir’s famous Rules of the Game. But despite his admirable, humane aspirations, Bobby fails to create a tight enough narrative from its multiple vignettes and story lines. Some of them play out as extraneous and dramatically inert.

Anthony Hopkins’ lonely retired doorman who returns almost daily to the hotel to schmooze with employees and play chess with another retiree (Harry Belafonte) at first seems modeled as a Grand Hotel-style framing device (there’s even a self-conscious reference to that antique romantic melodrama) but even this doesn’t pan out. Intermittent visits with two very young, skylarking Kennedy-campaign volunteers (Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geraghty) seem to be included primarily to touch base with the effects of the new drug culture on white, middle-class youth. Estevez appears as the beleaguered, emasculated husband of a mean-drunk lounge singer (Demi Moore) in scenes that have a soggy, domestic-drama flavor.

The director—who also wrote the film—has mapped all this out, but his movie’s progress is uneven, and is slowed by his sentimentally mechanical devices. A subplot involving a racially prejudiced kitchen manager (Christian Slater in one of the more effective performances) is more pointed and involving, but it stands out for that.

Estevez recurrently intercuts old film and audio of Kennedy in public appearances, and these have a power that’s surprising. The 42-year-old candidate was capable of an almost intimate, eloquently subdued, calmly cadenced public rhetoric that sounds strikingly removed from, almost a rebuke to, the designer-label demagoguery of contemporary political communication. (He was also capable of a more impatient, nastier style, as when he implicitly accused McCarthy of wanting to disperse LA ghetto blacks into the white-dominated San Fernando Valley.)

Estevez’s fluid camera work (much of it done with a prowling, gliding Steadicam) and the rhythmic editing give the film more pace and surface interest than the writing. He’s a generous, sympathetic filmmaker, but he probably needed to bring more rigor and tension to bear on his material.

You don’t have to buy into the movie’s tragic premise about the salvational promise brutally extinguished that night to be affected by it. Kennedy might well not have won the Democratic nomination a couple of months later at the infamous Chicago convention. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was rounding up delegates without entering primaries and McCarthy, who disliked Kennedy, had a slate he would not have willingly given to his rival. Kennedy’s ability to end the war in Vietnam and to quell the increasingly dangerous racial and political strife might have proved inadequate, even had he been nominated. Estevez obviously is a believer. It’s not necessary to share this faith to feel its appeal, and wish his film was better. I don’t share his retrospective vision and I wish it was.