On “Bobby”

Bobby, the Emilio Estevez film about the day Robert F. Kennedy was killed, sets itself up as a classic Altmanesque ensemble drama. The obvious antecedent is Altman’s 1975 film Nashville, which uses the country-music capital of the world as the backdrop for a set of intertwining stories. Like that film, Bobby focuses on a single location (the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles) and features two dozen major characters in or around its sphere. Perhaps coincidentally, both films also feature presidential candidates that don’t appear onscreen (except, in the case of Bobby, as archival footage) and climax with an assassination.

What interested me about Bobby was the decision to extend the scope of the Kennedy shooting beyond the senator, his family, and campaign entourage to the rest of the hotel’s staff and occupants who happened to be there on June 5, 1968, many of whom went through the day with plenty of other things on their minds. (Freddy Rodriguez, for instance, plays a kitchen worker who’s bummed that he can’t watch Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale attempt a sixth straight shut-out that night.) Historical fiction films provide an opportunity for a writer or director to tilt the narrative prism away from the oft-told tales, and in not even bothering to introduce Sirhan Sirhan, much less examine his motivations for killing RFK, Estevez’s tack is admirable.

At the same time, most of the narratives Estevez weaves in Bobby are just as concerned with the bloated momentousness of the occasion as the ones they’ve ostensibly replaced. We get a pair of eager campaign volunteers dropping acid for the first time, a young man getting married to avoid the draft, and a Czech reporter taking a break from the tumult in Prague to request an interview with Kennedy, all of whom seem to exist for no other reason than to make the shallow point that 1968 was crazy, man. This allows the film to promote its thesis that Bobby represented a unified hope for the future, bringing the ensemble together metaphorically as well as literally, but it treats its characters as simple stand-ins for a hastily sketched zeitgeist.

Perhaps if these vignettes were more dramatically satisfying, I’d have less of an issue with them. (A well-acted, racially charged scene in which chef Laurence Fishburne presides over a table of Latino cooks is a notable exception.) But while watching the film, what I longed for, I suppose, was the way United 93 strips away all the bluster and symbolism that continue to surround 9/11 and depicts exactly what happened that clear Tuesday morning, however mundane. Or maybe the way that Nashville uses its large cast to embody the growing fragmentation of American culture, instead of forcing a hokey sense of unity at the end, as Bobby does, with a long-winded speech by someone we’ve only seen on TV.

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