The Reeler


November 17, 2006


Liberal idealism of the 1960s gets an all-star cast in Estevez's comeback

Movies about the American electoral process tend to ignore ideology and focus on the mechanics of campaigning. Ever since The Best Man kicked off cinema's new era of political film, creeping cynicism has, perhaps correctly, paid more attention to how a candidate is made (or unmade) rather than what they may or may not stand for. The outright hagiography of Hollywood's past -- whether in real biopics like 1944's Wilson or Frank Capra's idealistic but politically incoherent films -- is unthinkable today, but Emilio Estevez comes close with Bobby, his eulogy for Robert F. Kennedy.

Sticking to the grounds of Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel from the morning of June 5, 1968 (when Kennedy was shot), up to the moment of the Democratic presidential candidate's assassination, Estevez puts his ensemble cast through most of the paces you'd expect from a not particularly imaginative movie attempting to sum up the '60s in two hours. "1968," the opening titles announce with comical understatement, "was a year of political and social turmoil in America." Estevez then sets about proving it as bluntly as he can, relying on hackneyed tropes of the decade.

There's a pair of Kennedy campaign volunteers (Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf) who get turned onto acid by a wide-eyed drug dealer (Ashton Kutcher) who talks about getting stoned as a way of getting closer to God. The volunteers slack off while an "angry young brother" (Nick Cannon) yells at polling precincts for setting up police blockades to prevent blacks from voting. The racist kitchen manager (Christian Slater) mutters angrily about the "wetbacks," while a busboy (Freddy Rodriguez) protests that he's "Latino, not Mexican." Nary a speech goes by without demonstrating that America needed Kennedy to heal it, except for the purely personal but equally charged dramas: the alcoholic lounge singer (Demi Moore) who abuses her husband's (Estevez) patience, the retired hotel worker (Harry Belafonte) confronting the onset of Alzheimer's without being able to put a name to it.

Conflict and Mark Isham's overbearing score keep Bobby running smoothly for two hours; wise editorial hands -- whether Harvey Weinstein's or others' -- have changed the original cut, removing those most overused of '60s song signifiers, "White Rabbit" and "California Dreamin'," in favor of slightly less overused songs like Donovan's "Hurdy-Gurdy Man." (Although someone really should've convinced Estevez not to use "The Sounds Of Silence" for his finale, early foreshadowing Graduate reference or not.) Estevez doesn't lean too heavily on his production design, though he can't resist a little smirk in showing a campaign volunteer demonstrating the new voting punch-cards as he warns about the possibility of hanging chads.

Still, the opening montage of newsreel footage includes, briefly, a familiar audio snippet of Mario Savio's much-quoted '60s protest speech ("There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part" etc.), used so much better in this year's Half Nelson as a jumping off point for discussion rather than a mere signifier of "The '60s." Estevez leans heavily on these kind of unexamined assumptions about what it all meant rather than what it might mean now, creating a problem in a film which leans heavily on references to an unpopular war to draw parallels with the present.

Though frequently mediocre, Bobby is rarely outright risible (aside from the speeches foisted on Laurence Fishburne, who at one point is forced to compare the process of self-realization to learning how to make cobbler). Cramming so many overqualified people into one space does have its rewards. Out of the cavalcade of stars, the surprising victors are Moore, who uses her bitter status as long-dated sex symbol to channels an effective brand of vitriol, and Anthony Hopkins, who refrains from performing Hannibal-type scenery-chewing. Estevez's dialogue is generally overstated (debate between Rodriguez and co-worker about equal rights: "Charlie, that'll never happen." "Why not?" "Because you're a Mexican."), but doesn't hold the cast back too much, even if everyone's allotted speeches seem to have been manufactured in handy Oscar-clip-reel lengths.

Because of its cast, Bobby remains watchable, if hardly great. But what makes it mildly commendable is its genuine attention to Kennedy. Whitewashed here, granted, RFK is still the most widely admired of the clan, and every 25 minutes or so Estevez simply stops the film to insert newsreel footage of his speeches and adoring listeners. The final montage is actually moving: the aftermath of the assassination is set to a surprisingly lengthy excerpt from a speech Kennedy had given a few months before following Martin Luther King Jr.'s own shooting. Estevez's belief that his subject can move the audience as much as (or more) than his own contrivances is admirable; Bobby's commitment to a brief moment of liberal idealism is a curiosity, but a worthy one.

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