Que Sirhan Sirhan
Everybody Know What's Going To Happen In Bobby--Except The Characters On-Screen
When Bobby begins, it gives every indication of being a sober-minded documentary on 1968 America. We get the familiar stock footage of bombs dropping and soldiers dying in Vietnam, of young students carrying anti-war signs and noodle-dancing at rock concerts, of Martin Luther King Jr. dying and Lyndon Johnson resigning. And we hear plenty of inspiring sound bites from Bobby Kennedy as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But after this brief prologue, the movie suddenly shifts gears and becomes a very different kind of historic tribute. It pays homage not to late-'60s politics but to such early-'70s disaster flicks as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. You know the formula: More than a dozen A-list actors play small roles in almost as many subplots as they cope with an overwhelming catastrophe. In this case the disaster is the real-life assassination of a major American politician.
In most disaster movies, the opening scenes introduce the characters as they blithely go about their business, unaware that a calamity is about to strike. In Bobby, writer/director Emilio Estevez allows that opening section to eat up 90 percent of the movie. You know that Kennedy is about to be shot, for this is, after all, June 4, 1968, at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel, but no one in the movie does.
As the characters cope with their troubled marriages, racial tensions, first LSD trip, drinking problems, and baseball mania, you keep expecting Kennedy to return to the hotel and meet his killer. But Estevez keeps delaying that moment until you start to wonder why the movie is called Bobby and why you should care about these nobody characters who fleetingly come and go.
In addition to the screenplay's structural problems, Estevez has a weakness for dialogue so schmaltzy it would embarrass Irwin Allen, producer of the original Poseidon and Inferno. Poor Laurence Fishburne, a hotel cook, is forced to give a saccharine homily on the little man to Freddy Rodríguez, a Latino busboy. Poor Martin Sheen, a wealthy socialite, is required to deliver a similarly maudlin monologue on true love to his insecure wife, Helen Hunt. Poor Harry Belafonte has to voice a self-pitying lament on growing old to his fellow retiree, Anthony Hopkins.
On the other hand, Estevez the director makes the weak script more watchable than it should be. He keeps the many strands of the complicated plot clear at all times and moving forward smartly. And he elicits some surprisingly strong performances from actors forced into smaller roles than usual.
Most surprising of all is Demi Moore as Virginia Fallon, the fictional star of stage and screen who is singing in the hotel's lounge that week. Aware that her main asset, her model's looks, is slipping away, Virginia takes refuge in a bottle and in sarcastic swipes at her husband (Estevez himself), her manager (David Krumholtz), and her hairdresser (Sharon Stone). Moore steals the movie by perfectly balancing her character's ruthless nastiness and insecure vulnerability.
Nearly as good is Stone, almost unrecognizable beneath a trowel of makeup that transforms her into a hard-bitten, middle-aged, blue-collar hon. Whether she is doling out advice for bride-to-be Lindsay Lohan, absorbing the taunts of Moore, or laying down the law to her philandering husband, William H. Macy, Stone registers as a force to be reckoned with.
And then, just when we'd forgotten that his movie was ostensibly about Robert F. Kennedy, the New York senator comes striding into the hotel to declare victory in the California primary. Estevez combines archival TV footage from 1968 with soundstage footage of his own actors in a way that almost works. You can't help but notice the difference between the grainy older shots and the much cleaner new shots, but with a little suspension of disbelief you can accept that Lohan, born in 1986, is in the same room with Bobby Kennedy.
You're willing to make the effort because the final 10 minutes of Bobby are so exciting, even if they seem part of an entirely different picture than everything that came before. When the charismatic Kennedy promises from the hotel podium to extract us from the Vietnam War and to redouble the War on Poverty, you realize that American liberalism reached a high tide that midnight. If Kennedy had gone on to win the nomination and the fall election, quite plausible at that moment, that tide might have continued to rise and might have made the '70s and '80s very different decades.
But 15 minutes later, Sirhan Sirhan fired his .22 revolver at Kennedy's stomach, and that tide has receded ever since. Estevez does a good job of capturing both the giddy party of celebration and the disorienting chaos of the shooting itself, the high hopes of the speech and the crashing despair of the aftermath. That would have made for a terrific picture, but that's not the movie Estevez chose to make.