The fate of a nation
In addition to opening on the anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy, the new movie about the murder of his brother Robert, Bobby, coincidentally appears only a few days after the death of Robert Altman. Not only recalling those two unprecedented national tragedies, but also echoing some of the peculiar Altman style and content, the film's connections chime with a special resonance. Although it seems highly unlikely that we will see a politician like Bobby Kennedy again, Emilio Estevez's efforts in the movie suggest that we may possibly see something like another Robert Altman.
The picture begins with a montage of newsreel footage and recorded television images of some of the noteworthy events of the turbulent 1960s --- civil rights marches, peace protests, farm labor strikes, race riots, brassiere burnings, the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., interspersed with some of Senator Robert Kennedy's public utterances and the announcement of his candidacy for president. Contemporary film of his speeches and moments from his presidential campaign appear throughout Bobby, which actually deals with a score of characters who in one way or another participate in the last moments of the candidate's life.
The action all takes place on primary election day, within the precincts of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Kennedy will make his appearance after the polls close and the votes are counted. An assortment of hotel employees, including a doorman, kitchen workers, switchboard operators, a hair stylist, the restaurant manager, go about their daily routines, while various hotel guests, including campaign workers, experience their own small adventures. A couple of goofy young Kennedy volunteers embark on their first acid trip; a boozy café singer and her husband break up; the philandering restaurant manager and his wife fight, then reconcile; the elderly doorman and his friend play some philosophical chess; the kitchen boss loses his job; a wealthy couple play tennis, talk, find some solace in each other; and so forth.
While all those people and their stories overlap and intersect in true Altmanesque style, everybody in the picture anticipates two widely different events --- the possibility that Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale will break a record for consecutive shutouts, and the hope that Robert Kennedy will win the California Democratic primary. In a complex irony, the audience knows the outcome for both men, with the additional awareness of the tragedy that awaits the candidate.
As the doorman (Anthony Hopkins) helpfully informs us, the life and history of the famous hotel resembles the classic 1930s movie Grand Hotel, which weaves together numerous plots --- tragic, comic, romantic --- for its ensemble of actors. One great difference between the two pictures, of course, involves the terrible climax that ends the action of Bobby, knitting together the various strands of character and emotion in the deadly gesture of a capricious fate. Further, the contemporary movie creates a suspense that evolves out of the audience's knowledge of a history the characters cannot suspect; while ordinary life simply goes innocently forward, we can only witness, powerless to intervene, the inevitability of approaching catastrophe.
The large cast includes a whole constellation of stars, but since the plot and the architecture dominate the picture, even the most famous and accomplished among them occupy supporting roles. Although he only appears occasionally throughout the film, Robert Kennedy essentially fulfills the part of hero, both a character in a tragedy and a figure from history. His presence may inform a new generation of a time when a politician spoke with passion and conviction, dared to take risks, and for perhaps the last time bridged the divides of class, race, age, and region in a country torn apart by war and injustice.
The footage of the candidate riding through the streets of towns and cities all over the country, with people of all ages and races reaching out simply to touch him, reminds us of a different time, when a leader inspired the best hopes of the nation rather than appealing to its selfishness and greed. America, Bobby shows us, was a different country then, and sadly, we were a different people; the movie informs us of just how much we have lost, how much we have given up, what we have become.
Bobby (R), written and directed by Emilio Estevez, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.