Contrary to what one might expect from a political documentary exec produced by Oliver Stone, “Assassinated” concerns itself not with conspiracy theories or the evils of government, but the shared vision of two American leaders who were murdered, within months of each other, during one of the most tempestuous periods in U.S. history. Though the filmmakers proffer little that’s new, they have orchestrated largely familiar archival material and new interviews to powerful, if sometimes hagiographic, effect. “The Last Days of King & Kennedy” is a cogent reminder of the immense hope these two men embodied for many Americans, and of the overwhelming despair their deaths engendered.
Opening with Robert Kennedy’s announcement to an Indianapolis crowd on April 4, 1968, that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed in Memphis, docu traces key events in both men’s lives over the preceding seven years. There are no naysayers here: Family members and colleagues offer impassioned testimony, intimate anecdotes. The film is concerned more with political idealism than political maneuvering, and takes a kind of high road that serves its subjects well but sometimes ignores context. Thus, Kennedy’s late entry in the ’68 presidential race is regarded here as a selfless act, leaving questions of personal ambition unaddressed; rating no mention at all is the fact that his decision created bad blood among Democrats, particularly supporters of Eugene McCarthy.
Though civil rights leaders foresaw dark days for their cause when John Kennedy’s administration took office in 1961, King made an early appeal to the attorney general, who was viewed, in Andrew Young’s words, as the “ruthless political operative of his big brother.” Their meeting was, according to one observer, a defining moment for both men, the joining of forces between “the ultimate pragmatist and the ultimate idealist.”
Kennedy was inspired by the bravery of King and other activists, who were willing to die in the name of justice, and King became involved in such practical tactics as voter registration, in addition to his established program of civil disobedience. (Docu does fail to mention that the federal government often stood by while local police beat or killed those involved in registering black voters in the South.)
Early in the film, Harry Belafonte calls Bobby Kennedy “a rich Irish kid who was struck by history and destiny.” “Assassinated” effectively illustrates those forces of history that transformed RFK from mere politician to a man galvanized by pain and compassion. Besides King’s effect on him, the documentary points to two crucial events: his brother’s assassination in ’63 and his 1967 trip to Mississippi, where he was clearly devastated by the conditions in which poor black children were being raised.
Filmmakers Vince DiPersio and William Guttentag assume the viewer’s knowledge of American politics in the ’60s. Rather than spell out events in detail, they weave a background landscape of increasing turmoil — at home and in Southeast Asia — greatly abetted by editors Michael Bloecher and William Haugse, who intercut news footage and stills with the present-day interviews to create a haunting portrait of a nation in the heat of battle. Vietnam was the crucible, and King and Kennedy were further united in their opposition to the war.
“Martin became our Moses,” one civil rights leader comments. When King was killed, the hope invested in him was transferred to RFK, who chose to carry on the slain leader’s work and who, perhaps just as knowingly as did King, put his life on the line to continue the fight. The poignant insights of witnesses, underscored by Philip Marshall’s plaintive music, suggest the inevitability of these two men’s sacrifices, and the inner struggles they faced.
It’s hard to imagine such risk-taking today by American political figures. Personal reminiscences notwithstanding, “Assassinated” is not so much about the last days of its two subjects as it is a eulogy for the last days of soul-stirring oratory, visionary idealism and moral courage in the political arena.