(HOST) Commentator Jay Craven went to the movies recently, and came away with decidedly mixed emotions.
(CRAVEN) I recently attended the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest in Los Angeles and was invited to a Hollywood opening for Emilio Estevez’s film, “Bobby.” A cavalcade of the film’s stars walked the red carpet, among them Helen Hunt, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, Harry Belafonte, Lindsay Lohan, and part-time Vermonter, WH Macy.
“Bobby” is earnest and warmhearted, the result of obvious good intentions. Estevez weaves a series of seemingly unrelated stories together – all of them taking place on June 4th 1968, when presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, minutes after announcing his California primary victory.
Unfortunately, for me, “Bobby” failed to deliver on its promise.
Despite fine performances, the film never achieves dramatic intensity or narrative weight with its cameo-style structure. Estevez may have aimed for the buoyancy of Robert Altman’s revolving door narratives but Altman’s films use irony, metaphor, character subtext, and satire to achieve a critical mass of layered meaning.
All of this is too bad. Because the onscreen words and documentary images of Kennedy are arresting in their freshness and potency.
During his erratic career, Robert Kennedy defended Joe McCarthy and privately agreed with his brother Jack that Martin Luther King’s civil rights demands were unreasonable and politically inconvenient. And he authorized wiretaps against King, after getting pressure from J. Edgar Hoover.
Still, just several years later, Kennedy highlighted the scourge of poverty in white Appalachia, and compelled reluctant corporations to invest in blighted black neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant. He articulated his view that the health of a society is best measured at the base – not the top.
Estevez uses Kennedy’s improvised remarks on the night of King’s assassination over “Bobby’s” end credits – and they are still affecting.
Bobby Kennedy valued the role of culture to provide meaning – and he often referenced poetry to help shape his political message. During the dark months following his brother’s assassination, he reportedly plunged into a deep depression where words from Dante’s Inferno and the Greek poets helped him face the implications of death and possibilities for renewal.
When King was assassinated, Kennedy empathized with black people’s anger and as the film credits rolled, I heard him once again – quoting Aeschylus who wrote:
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago,” said Kennedy, “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
As I left Grauman’s theater, I noticed that without the klieg lights and flash cameras, the evening light seemed flat. And I realized that however imperfect the film, it had served to remind me of Bobby Kennedy’s promise, and dreams that have now become faded and gray.
Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.