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Uneven "Bobby" Revisits 1960s Idealism

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2006 11 Nov
  • COMMENTS
Uneven "Bobby" Revisits 1960s Idealism

DVD Release Date:  April 10, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  November 23, 2006 (wide)
Rating:  R (for language, drug content and a scene of violence)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  120 min.
Director:  Emilio Estevez
Actors:  Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, William H. Macy, Sharon Stone, Ashton Kutcher, Elijah Wood, Lindsay Lohan, Laurence Fishburne, Heather Graham, Shia LeBeouf, Harry Belafonte, Christian Slater, Freddy Rodriguez, Svetlana Metkina, Brian Geraghty

In “Bobby,” it’s June 4, 1968 – hours before idealism in America would be diminished, and cynicism would take hold. The assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy shortly after midnight would keep Americans divided into different classes and races – divisions that Kennedy, had he lived, might have healed.

Such is the message of Emilio Estevez’s multi-character drama, which pictures America’s troubles and hopes through the eyes of 22 people whose lives intersect that day at the Ambassador Hotel, the site where Kennedy was cut down.

The collection of characters here ranges from depressing to tolerable, but none are particularly admirable. A former doorman (Anthony Hopkins) spends his days playing chess in the hotel’s lobby, regaling his playing partner (Harry Belafonte) with tales of the good old days. The hotel manager (William H. Macy) chastises a racist supervisor (Christian Slater) for not allowing his kitchen staff to take time off to vote, even as the manager carries on an affair with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham). His wife (Sharon Stone, in a tremendous comeback performance) works as a hairdresser for the hotel’s guests, including boozy singer Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore) and an engaged woman (Lindsay Lohan) whose main reason for marriage is to save her groom (Elijah Wood) from serving in Vietnam.

It’s more than enough for two or three films, but wait, there’s more. A chef (Laurence Fishburne) promotes the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to an angry Latino (Freddy Rodriguez) who refuses to appease his superiors. Meanwhile, a husband and wife (Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt) search for a purpose to their empty lives.

So, let’s see: How much of the late-1960s ground have we covered so far? Racial strife? Check. Infidelity? Check. Vietnam? Check.

What’s left? Drugs and communism, of course! And so we watch two young Kennedy campaign volunteers (Shia LeBeouf and Brian Geraghty) take their first acid trips after a drug dealer (Ashton Kutcher) promises that the illegal substance will initiate them into a “personal relationship with God.” A Czech reporter (Svetlana Metkina) represents communism, a toxic affiliation that keeps her from scoring an interview with Kennedy, even though she insists she’s a socialist, not a communist – a distinction lost on Kennedy’s aides.

“Bobby” is less concerned with its title character than it is with teaching 1960s history – presumably to those too young to have considered it previously. What we get is a “highlight reel” of late-sixties turbulence set to the most obvious period songs imaginable (Smokey Robinson, Simon & Garfunkel). Estevez intersperses compelling archival footage of Kennedy at several points throughout the film, choosing to let 21st century Americans see the man as he actually was, albeit through selective clips and sound bites. But the director doesn’t trust viewers to figure out the import of Kennedy’s campaign and ambitions. He ends the film with a lengthy excerpt from a Kennedy speech that, while eloquent, has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, coming as it does after two hours of allusions and specific mentions of the possibility of national and personal healing.

The idealism on display in “Bobby” is less a relic of an earlier era than it is symptomatic of a naivety about human nature. The tension between the film’s ambitions and the reality of the sinful human heart is on display right there in the hours before Kennedy was killed, and with him, idealism: The era was characterized by racism, infidelity, bloodshed, and unrest.

Only one man can save us from the darkness within our hearts and from the evil that men do. That man was not Robert Kennedy, however noble his intentions might have been. Estevez clings to a view of life that invests too much hope in one man, and too much implicit disappointment in the leaders we’ve had since.

Christians must be on guard against cynicism, and against putting any leader, regardless of party affiliation, on a pedestal. But we also must be careful not to invest our hopes in a fantasy of what might have been, downplaying the disgraces of earlier eras by alluding to the excesses of our own time. “Bobby” does both, asking us to believe the very best about what might have transpired had Kennedy become president, while hinting that our current problems are the result of more sinister leaders.

The film’s biggest surprise is that the end result is so banal.

AUDIENCE:  Older teens and up

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple profanities; racial epithets
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Smoking and drinking; use of illegal drugs; hallucinations
  • Sex/Nudity:  A mistress dresses after a sexual encounter; a joke about urination; naked male backside; kissing; two men say they fantasized about a woman
  • Violence:  Scenes of racial unrest; an assassination is depicted, and bystanders are wounded
  • Religion:  A drug dealer speaks of a substance’s ability to bring about a “personal relationship with God”
  • Marriage:  A troubled couple takes a second honeymoon; a young woman marries a man to keep him from military service