If Robert Kennedy were running for president right now, “Bob Kennedy, the Man Who Wanted to Change America” would be a heck of a potent campaign tool. Concise, informative portrait from French documaker Patrick Jeudy skillfully stitches together archival footage and photographs to show how a son-of-privilege became a hands-on crusader for the people. Result is an eminently watchable time capsule for baby boomers and their elders as well as a fine classroom tool to get youngsters thinking about how America has and hasn’t fulfilled the promise of the 1960s. Film won the documentary prize in Avignon.
While not nearly as visually elegant as Jeudy’s previous pic, “What Jackie Knew,” documaker again plunges the viewer into a thoughtful you-are-there atmosphere so convincing that one is slightly surprised to land in the 21st century when the lights go up.
Docu starts and ends with footage of the train carrying RFK’s casket from California to Washington, D.C., in June of 1968. JFK and RFK were killed five years apart; study concentrates on the heady promise and enormous challenges of the turbulent times spanning JFK’s election to the senate in 1952 and the presidency in 1960 — feats he could never have achieved without Bobby’s behind-the-scenes efforts — followed by RFK gradually coming into his own after his brother’s death.
Jeudy’s carefully chosen footage underlines the brothers’ Cold War brinkmanship; RFK’s lingering guilt that leaning too hard on powerful characters such as Jimmy Hoffa (“By voting Kennedy, the Mob had counted on a certain measure of security”) and J. Edgar Hoover (“an adversary who could not be intimidated”) might have led to his beloved brother’s assassination; Bobby’s determination to destroy Fidel Castro; his travels abroad and to poverty-stricken Mississippi. In the wake of the desolation he witnessed in the South, RFK resolved to make America a more equitable nation, whose citizens — both black and white, rich and poor — could enjoy their civil rights in full.
Footage of swarming admirers harkens to volatile but less paranoid times when it was probably easier for the man in the street to shake hands with the President of the United States than it is to get within waving distance of Brad Pitt today. But if they enjoyed a groundswell of popular support, both Kennedys also faced a veritable armada of powerful enemies.
Pic doesn’t hesitate to spell out the many ways in which the Kennedy brothers were poor candidates for sainthood (JFK’s reckless womanizing and RFK’s precipitous crusades as attorney general get the spotlight).
Docu leaves no doubt that if the possibilities of America have always been extraordinary, the stakes are sky high for those who tamper with the status quo. RFK was cut down on the cusp of social advances that, successfully implemented, would almost certainly have led to a very different domestic and international scene today.
French and English-narrated versions are available internationally; Yanks may find the choice of a British-accented voice on the latter a bit peculiar but not disagreeable. Use of the “M.A.S.H.” theme song “Suicide Is Painless” over images of RFK campaigning is jarring among otherwise appropriate source tunes.