Paul Cooper reviews Bobby
Bobby Kennedy met his end on 5 June,1968. He was shot in the head, point-blank, as he made his way through a crowded hotel kitchen.
Most of the people in the kitchen were black or Hispanic hotel workers. They had been servicing the Democratic Party convention that was celebrating Kennedy’s victory in the California Primary. Bobby Kennedy was the great hope of those workers, as he was of the civil rights movement.
At key points in the film use is made of archive footage of Bobby Kennedy on the campaign trail. What you see is an emotional investment of hope in a charismatic and heroic figure of the political elite by the economically and politically dispossessed.
It could be argued that the assassination of his brother, President John Kennedy five years earlier, endowed anything Bobby Kennedy did with mythic status. Some of the archive footage feels like a classical Greek tragedy. What do I mean?
The audience know that this is a man who is going to die. We know the ending. Bobby Kennedy often sounds like a man who expects to die. He expected to be assassinated while he was Attorney General under his brothers Presidency. His stance on organised crime and the burgeoning civil rights movement were guaranteed to produce a queue of assassins. Perhaps, it is implied, his death will heal what his life couldn’t — the American polis.
This is also a film about the exhaustion of hope and the shattering of hope. This is the real ending of the 60s, the last decade of political and cultural “optimism”, given dramatic form by director Estevez assembling in the Ambassador Hotel a procession of exhausted relationships.
People hide from one another, and themselves. The Sharon Stone character, a fading cabaret star, uses alcohol to do this. The manager of the Hotel, played by Anthony Hopkins, uses work. Their hopes for being re-united with themselves and those they might love resonate dramatically with Bobby Kennedy as the figure who will repair and bring together the warring parts of American society.
This is well done by Estevez. However, the class divisions of American society will determine that such a unity will have no more substance than the LSD trip enjoyed by two young reporters covering the convention.
Bobby Kennedy, “remains one of history’s great ‘what ifs,’ not just for America but for the world at large.” So said Sandra Hebron in her review for the Times of Bobby’s London Film Festival premiere. Now there are lots of “what ifs” in history but not in the domain of capitalism “healing itself”. That great liberal project was historically exhausted at birth. Had Bobby Kennedy won the Presidency, he would have had, by necessity, to accommodate any emancipatory policies to the interests of the American ruling class. However, if you are dead you can’t disappoint.
But what of those who live? The film’s final movement is formed in the reactions of the characters to Bobby Kennedy’s convention address and his assassination. Even before his arrival characters appear to be undergoing processes of re-conciliation, moral rejuvenation, impulses to solidarity and mutual understanding and in the case of the character played by Martin Sheen,(the director’s dad), return of erectile function. This is mythic stuff — but it works dramatically.
The final scenes of a blood-sprayed entourage tending to the fears and agonies of its injured members, including a manager sacked for racism, invoked in me a powerful emotional response. It was one of those moments when you glimpse an image of raw human solidarity.
Estevez doesn’t show us blood-stained floors hosed down clean and business as usual to end the film, but he does present us with the little stories of ordinary people fusing into the bigger story of the exhaustion and shattering