Bobby, as a Lesson for the Future
What is it about the Kennedy family that intoxicates Americans? Almost 40 years after the assassination of the younger member of America’s royal family, the story still invokes tears and gasps from audiences. Emilio Estevez’s Bobby tells the story of the events that took place in the Ambassador hotel the day that Robert Kennedy won the California primary and was then shot in the kitchen of the hotel. The movie follows a number of people and how they go about their day the political potential was killed. All of those individuals end up in the ballroom listening to RFK accept the win, and a number of them are in the kitchen with him when he is shot.
One theme which is constant through the movie is that of violence – both domestic and abroad. The violence referred to is both between individuals and on a national level. The social turmoil in America at that time was tangible. Violence existed between race, class, and nationalities. The characters Estevez follows embody all of those social tensions as well. Elderly men lament about how society rejected them once they reached a certain age, young men talk about how they are afraid of being shipped off the Vietnam, women discuss their roles and how they are expected to put themselves out to protect the wellbeing of their husbands and they aren’t supposed to feel neglected. Finally, a young African American political worker is distressed over the lack of support towards encouraging poor black citizens to vote. These individuals are microcosms of the greater social strife, and one of the main strengths of the movie lies in its ability to personalize global problems and puts a face to the conflict.
Another interesting artistic choice is to interweave archival footage and voiceovers from speeches RFK made during the campaign trail. Estevez makes very conscience decisions about which of RFK’s speeches to highlight in the film. It is clear that he is making a direct parallel between the socio-political situation in the 1960s and that of today. The speeches all talk about how America cannot survive as a nation divided by race, economics and political opinions. At a time where there are a number of parallels being drawn between the two eras, this movie is no exception. There was so much hope among Americans when Bobby was running for president. People expected him to take over his brother’s legacy and bring America back to a place where people could be proud. The optimism was almost palatable. When the shots from Sirhan Sirhan’s gun ring out throughout the hotel, that promise fades along with him.
Interwoven throughout the movie are real pieces of archival footage from goings on in the 1960s and from Bobby Kennedy’s campaign trail. One of this movie’s greatest strength is using those images to further its agenda. The movie wants to the audience to identify with the characters and by using that footage it reminds viewers that this isn’t just a fictional account of what happened. The people and events depicted are real and the issues the country was facing at the time was real and pressing. So too, the danger of times we are currently in are just as imminent and Americans are yearning for a savior, like the one they saw in John F. Kennedy and then with his younger brother, Bobby.
Another theme throughout the movie is that of escapism. Characters work hard to find their own ways to escape from the harsh reality of the world in which they live. Lounge singer Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore) chooses to escape into “a bottle of very fine scotch.” Two young pollsters (Shia LeBouf and Brian Geraghty) wish to buy a joint from a hippie (Ashton Kutcher), but instead they get a chance to experience their very first acid hit. Others, like Diane and William (Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood) choose to get married to keep William away from the front lines in Vietnam. This young couple is escaping from their real lives to marry one another in order to not have to face the harsh reality of where young boys are being sent every day. Ultimately, the message is that there is no escape. Those who try the hardest to escape come face to face with the harsh realities of the world. There is no shelter from violence, no matter what measures are taken to protect oneself. However, the escape seemed to be possible, that is, until Kennedy was shot. At this point, people faced the real danger and the sadness as soon as their political leadership was literally unable to help them forge a new future.
Ultimately the message of the film is that violence at home cannot be underestimated. Bobby Kennedy ran on a platform which stated that until we can live together in peace domestically, we cannot expect peace from abroad. This is a message which is relevant today. The current war in Iraq is an issue which has this country divided, but the message cannot be forgotten that we should not abandon our ideal of peace to end a war abroad. Bobby Kennedy represented hopefulness for a better future. His life was cut short by an act of senseless violence. That is why his legacy remains powerful and relevant until today. It is the same reason his brother’s legacy is strong as well. The movie closes with home photographs of the Kennedy brothers together and smiling. People at that time thought, especially after Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. murder, that RFK was the country’s last chance for not only peace, but for social unification. The sentiment of this movie seems to be saying that we still haven’t found someone who can lead us like our potential leadership from 40 years ago. The film wishes for a return to a leadership whom the American people can look towards with an idealistic sense of hope.
Finally, Bobby is a who’s who of Hollywood. It seemed that anyone in Hollywood who considers him or herself a liberal wished to jump on this bandwagon. At times it was distracting – always knowing that the next character to appear is another big name actor you were not expecting to see. Sometime is would have been better to leave some of the roles to less known actors. For instance, I would have enjoyed the movie far greater had some other young ingénue play the role of Diane. I did not need to hear Lindsay Lohan raspily drone on about the perils of the war and the selflessness of her act to marry William when in real life, her shenanigans are anything but selfless or cautionary. Furthermore, while Laurence Fishburne is a fantastic actor, it was needless for him to play the wise chef. The role was too small for him and his monologue about how much of a king Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) is for giving him Dodgers tickets was too melodramatic to be believable. It was, however, fantastic to see Sharon Stone and Demi Moore play women their own ages who resist just that – being a middle aged women in a youth obsessed culture. They were cast perfectly in those roles.
As award season rolls along, politically charged films are anything but a novelty. However, what is particularly interesting about this film is its use of politics which are close to 40 years old to make a film which is so relevant today. Not only does the movie succeed at making this link, but it does so quite seamlessly at that. So the question individuals have to ask themselves is, will we as a country allow ourselves to watch history repeat itself? We have not fully regressed to the level of violence, domestically that is, that existed in the 1960s, but perhaps this film should be a warning to Americans and American leadership of what may happen if things continue to escalate.