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'Bobby': Flawed Inspiration, a Feel-Good Movie for Progressives

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Some reviewers have taken malicious pleasure in slamming Emillio Estavez's "Bobby", a tapestry of fictional characters converging on the day that Robert F. Kennedy was assasinated June 4, 1968. Too much "message" some lament. (Better to have a muddy confusion like "Syriana", which critics adored?) Too many characters, others yell. (Some truth in that observation).

The more thoughtful critics observe that RFK had a decidely mixed political career, that included working with 1950s anti-communist witch-hunter Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, approved wiretaps of Martin Luther KIng, Jr. as Attorney General and supported the Vietnam War longer than candidates like Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy did.

These are certainly facts (with the possible exception of Kennedy's position on Vietnam which was,I think, more complicated. A recent biography re-aired on PBS strongly suggests that there were two Robert Kennedys: the one film critics describe, who existed before the assasination of his brother in 1963, and the one afterwards, who seems to have been shocked through suffering into questioning every position he'd ever held. I look at RFK in a similar light to Malcolm X: two men who continued to grow and change right up to the moments of their untimely murders.

The problem with assuming this movie is about RFK, is that'Bobby' isn't a biopic. It's a film far less about the title character, a politician, than it is about ordinary people in a particular time and place: America on a June day in 1968, after the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. and before the 'Days of Rage' at the Democratic Convention in August, the election of Richard Nixon, bombing Cambodia, Watergate and the subsequent national resurgence of rightwing consevatism.

I agree that 22 characters is an overload, Fewer characters, explored in more depth, would have strengthened the film. But, part of what I liked about 'Bobby' is that, unlike most films set in the 1960s (and there have been surprisingly few of them), we get more diversity than drug-induced, love bead stereotypes. Critics' condescension for characters like the racial politics of African-American and Mexian immigrant kitchen workers, both towards each other and white management, obviously haven't given much thought to these realities--either historically or now. I found these characters to be truthful. The relationship between retirees played by Harry Belefonte and Anthony Quinn was delightful. The young couple marrying to keep the young man from being sent to Vietnam is absoluely believable and a refreshingly conplicated counterpoint to the 1960's 'sexual revolution/free love' decadence Hollywood usually prefers.

There are too many 'cameo' performers here to be sure. Was there any real point to Martin Sheen's character (married to Helen Hunt), as middle-aged second honeymooners--except for Estavez to get to work with his dad? Demi Moore plays an alcoholic lounge singer with real crediblity, but, who cares? I would have prefered to have had one of the earnest young campaign workers be a young woman, grappling with the emerging women's movement, trying to be taken as seriously in political acitivity, as her male counterparts. I also didn't find the adulterous affair between a young switchboard operator of modeleque beauty and the hotel manager, played with depressive hangdoggedness by William Macy, believeable at all. However, the manager's wife, played by Sharon Stone, might be the finest performance that actress has ever given.


In 'Bobby', RFK, to a large degree, becomes metaphor for the kind of political idealism that's now sneered at, made fun of on the Daily Show and dismissed by pundits as ' unrealistic', 'socialist' or outright treason. RFK exemplified an eloquence in political discourse that few politicians--especially as candidates--seem capable of, or, when they are, usually not compatible with sound-bite 24-hour-media coverage. Kennedy not only unleashed unabashed passion, but, could easily quote literature. The only presidential candidate who's tapped this sort of deep well of feeling and ideas is Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) in 2004. Both the corporate media and his own party treated him with utter contempt.

You could certainly call 'Bobby' a feel-good movie for progressives. Given how much cinematic pap is produced--from the latest 'date movie' to revenge flick blood-fests, what's wrong with resurrecting a time dedicated to social change? Estavez did a subtle job of integrating archival news footage of RFK, which is a lot more than one can say for another 'feel good film', using old news footage, that comes to mind: the sappy 'Forest Gump' defines wretched excess, with a plot that required the audience to suspend a truckload of disbelief and it's lead character was a cartoon. Gump was irritation not inspiration, but, has managed to be almot universally lauded, perhaps, because 'Forest Gum'' dealt with the 1960s in a safe way that demanded no reflection, much less current action.

Certainly some people may passively conclude 'Bobby' is a mediatation on 'What might have been if he had lived?" But, listening to the moving speech at the film's end, I thought of all those 'ordinary Americans' on that victorious moment in June 1968, in the midst of continued racial struggle and a seemingly endless war, who passionately engaged as citizens. T thought of today's progressives, like Cindy Sheehan and so many people I personally know, who speak out in a time of paasive and atommized consumers.

I was just 10 years old on June 4, 1968. The closing RFK speech resonated with the 1960's willingness to face ugly truths and answer them with hopes for real healing towards peace with justice and equality. Listening to Robert Kennedy's voice, I felt the powerful audacity of committment to dreams: that it really is possible to make America live up to its stated ideals. Without shame, I confess, I wept.
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http://blog.myspace.com/lydiahowell
Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis journalist, poet, activist and producer/host of "Catalyst:politics & culture" on KFAI Radio, all shows archived for 2 weeks after braodcast at www.kfai.org

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