Viewing the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy through the eyes of guests and staff in the hotel where the senator was shot on June 5, 1968, Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby” is a passionate outcry for peace and justice in America that becomes deeply involving by the final climactic scene, overlaid with one of RFK’s most stirring speeches. A warm reception at Venice, followed by a Gala bow in Toronto are well timed to put the picture in the spotlight during the serious-minded fall (and election) season, taking the same route George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” took to galvanize a following.
Though its principal constituency is bound to be liberal audiences, the film can count on strong nonpartisan appeal thanks to one of the starriest casts in recent memory: Anthony Hopkins (also an executive producer), Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, Harry Belafonte, Laurence Fishburne, Lindsay Lohan, Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, Christian Slater, William H. Macy, Elijah Wood and Estevez himself. Overseas box office should be particularly strong given cast and political slant.
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The print screened in Venice lacked complete end credits and a key end title song described by the director as an “anthem about hope” written by Bryan Adams and sung by Aretha Franklin, among others. This addition is, however, unlikely to offset the elegiac closing mood, in which Kennedy’s own voice rings out with an inspiring vision for America, bringing down the curtain on an emotional high.
Stepping up as writer and director in a way he never has before, Estevez successfully pulls together a complexly designed narrative intertwining newsreel footage of RFK with mini-stories about 22 fictional characters. Each story reflects on the zeitgeist of the ’60s, including its films and pop culture, racial and class tensions and the Vietnam War. Not all the stories are equally engrossing, but collectively they create a buzzy atmosphere a la “Grand Hotel,” which is specifically cited.
Though Estevez’s script predates 9/11, it carries an eerie topicality that makes many of its insights instantly click. Archival footage shows young soldiers being brought home in body bags from Vietnam, “a war no one understands”; police checkpoints in Watts keep voters from getting to the polls; illegal immigrants are underpaid, despised and angry.
Film opens on an electrifying collage of newsreels that sets the scene in 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been shot to death in Memphis, five years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination; Los Angeles’ glamorous Ambassador Hotel is about to become the scene of another tragedy. RFK’s presidential election campaign, still in the primaries, is in full swing, and the New York senator is awaited in the hotel that evening for a speech.
At this point politics takes a back seat as fiction takes the wheel. The hotel is awash in ordinary people living out their private dramas on that fateful day. Retired doorman John Casey (Hopkins) passes the time playing chess with his old friend Nelson (Belafonte). The hotel’s liberal manager Paul Ebbers (Macy), who is quietly married to beautician Miriam (Stone), fires his racist manager, Timmons (Christian Slater).
Singing in the hotel that night is fallen star Virginia Fallon (Moore), an alcoholic who abuses her husband, Tim (Estevez). Virginia literally lets her Liz Taylor-like hair down in a salon scene with the level-headed, humorously dolled-up Miriam that touches on the theme of women’s position in society. The same note is sounded in the fashion anxiety of Manhattan socialite Samantha Stevens (Hunt), who finds a reassuring presence in her depressed husband Jack, played by Estevez pere Martin Sheen.
The kitchen staff are largely Mexican-Americans like the honest young Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), forced to work a double shift on the night Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale is going for a record. As the wise chef Edward (Fishburne) intuits when the youth makes him a gift of his tickets, Jose is a noble soul destined to play a role in history.
Estevez’s screenplay also stresses numerous acts of generosity; the untiring labor of angry Kennedy aide Dwayne (Nick Cannon) earns him the gratitude of RFK, and along with Fishburne and Rodriguez, Cannon poignantly and vividly embodies the civil rights struggle of the time and RFK’s concern for the underprivileged.
Female idealism finds its heroine in young Diane (Lohan), who bucks her family to marry her schoolmate William (Wood) and keep him out of Vietnam. Both popular thesps are so low-key, it takes a moment to recognize them. In a softly comic role, Russian actress Svetlana Metkina limns an earnest Czech journalist who finds her interview request with RFK rebuffed by an aide (Joshua Jackson) on grounds she’s a Communist.
A little over-stretched but still quite funny is an extended skit featuring junior Kennedy stompers Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf, who let themselves get sidetracked into an LSD trip by hippie pusher Ashton Kutcher. As the film comes into the home stretch and Kennedy’s date with destiny approaches, all the fictional stories begin to seem superfluous, suggesting a further trim may be in order.
Michael Barrett’s widescreen lensing embraces soft, muted period colors that blend in with production designer Patti Podesta’s ingenious re-creation of the Ambassador Hotel, which was being torn down while filming was in progress. Almost the entire film is shot on Steadicam, a choice that updates its Grand Hotel narrative model with a documentary edge and allows it to melt into the well-chosen archive footage.
Richard Chew’s editing skill peaks in the film’s dramatic finale, which switches back and forth in rapid shot/counter shot between Kennedy newsreels and the film’s actors. The images are movingly overlaid with the senator’s prescient speech, delivered after King’s assassination, on ways to end violence in the world
In the soundtrack at Venice, the ’60s were carried into the soundtrack with over-familiar chestnuts like “White Rabbit” and “California Dreaming,” which have been better used elsewhere.