By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006
"People come, people go. Nothing ever happens." That's a quote from "Grand Hotel," the 1932 classic mentioned in passing by Anthony Hopkins in "Bobby," Emilio Estevez's ambitious, uneven and deeply affecting drama about the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated .
The reference is Estevez's self-conscious nod to a film that, like his, featured an all-star cast in a tangled skein of interwoven stories. But "Bobby's" real antecedent is "From Here to Eternity," the 1953 drama set on an Army base in Hawaii just weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In that film, another all-star cast played a bunch of guys battling their own demons, oblivious to the coming cataclysm. With "Bobby," Estevez similarly keeps the film's real subject on the margins of the story, instead conveying what the world looked and sounded and felt like the moment before it shattered.
It's a terrific conceit, and an effective one with which Estevez -- best known as one of the "Brat Pack" actors of the 1980s whose last directorial outing was the 1996 Vietnam drama "The War at Home" -- evokes what Kennedy meant to his followers. Running in the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries against Eugene McCarthy, Kennedy had just won the California primary when he was gunned down in Los Angeles's Ambassador Hotel on June 5. Coming just a couple of months after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., and a few years after the assassination of his own brother in Dallas, Kennedy's killing seemed to complete a grievous trilogy, one that signified the death not just of a man, but of the ideals of a generation.
In "Bobby," that generation is most effectively embodied by a character named Diane (Lindsay Lohan), who has come to the Ambassador to marry a young man she knows only vaguely, in order to keep him from going to Vietnam. Jittery and sad (her parents are boycotting the ceremony), she's also fired by the moral certainty that she's saving a life. When she explains what she's doing to a manicurist played by Sharon Stone, the unspoken wisdom between the two women is palpable and quietly electrifying.
That's one of the best scenes of "Bobby," which begins with a false fire alarm at the hotel and follows the quotidian travels and travails of various guests and staff throughout that day. Miguel (Jacob Vargas), a kitchen worker, has tickets to the Dodgers game later, where he hopes to see Don Drysdale pitch a record-setting shutout; the almost-washed-up singer Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore) sleeps off another drinking binge while her husband (Estevez) walks the dog and worries. Stone's manicurist, Miriam, is married to the Ambassador's manager, Paul (William H. Macy), who's having an affair with a receptionist, Angela (Heather Graham), who is observed by a malign kitchen boss, Timmons (Christian Slater), who has just been fired for not giving his staff time off to vote.
Meanwhile, Kennedy campaign workers drift in and out of the lobby, with two young volunteers (Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geraghty) playing hooky to drop acid with a drug dealer (Ashton Kutcher, looking like a cross between John Lennon and Dennis Hopper). The drug trip represents the worst of "Bobby," a goofy, even tacky digression that serves no narrative purpose other than to Billboard a Cultural Signifier of the Day.
If such sandwich-board scenes present an awkward moment or two, and if some of the vignettes fail outright (Moore's frowzy diva goes nowhere except to a boozy confession in a beauty parlor), they are far outweighed by "Bobby's" most powerful passages. Most of those feature stirring real-life footage of Kennedy speaking, or during such famous fact-finding tours as his walk through Appalachia. (In an astute move, Estevez didn't cast an actor to play Kennedy, instead letting him play himself in the archival material.) Very few of the fictional characters speak about Kennedy in "Bobby"; it's never spelled out whether they're true believers, skeptical observers or even ideological opponents. But the ideas that Kennedy came to espouse in the course of his career -- ideas about racial and gender equality, about poverty and nonviolence -- define the warp and woof of the picture, whether it's the interracial friendship between two old warhorses (played by Hopkins and Harry Belafonte as retired Ambassador employees), Miriam's umbrage when Paul tells her how to vote, or a startlingly effective soliloquy of a sous-chef (Laurence Fishburne) to his Chicano co-workers on the politics of accommodation.
The primary-day banter that hums behind much of "Bobby" will prove grimly prescient to American voters, who may greet dialogue about new and improved voting systems and little things called chads with rue, if not refreshed outrage. But mostly "Bobby" is steeped in the 1960s, from the real-life Ambassador that served as a set before it was demolished to the women's flawlessly frosted lips and poufed-up hair.
For those filmgoers old enough to remember, every little and big event in "Bobby" anticipates one dreadful moment, that long walk from the stage through the Ambassador kitchen, the closest thing this country has to a secular Passion Play. Five of "Bobby's" fictional characters portray the actual people who were also shot that night, making what could have been a tawdry ritual joltingly immediate and intimate. The equally famous Pieta of the busboy cradling the dying man's head is re-created with similar intimacy, with our man Miguel missing baseball history only to find himself part of history with a capital H.
There's always been an uneasy, even unseemly relationship between such events and Hollywood's urge to dramatize them. But "Bobby," even if it suffers from a few silly scenes and heavy-handed characterizations, gets more right than it does wrong. Estevez's use of the documentary Kennedy material is seamless and organic, allowing the audience to witness his charisma and the extraordinary effect he had on crowds. And the filmmaker's choice to conclude "Bobby" by letting a Kennedy speech on nonviolence run in its entirety gathers boldness and meaning and moral momentum as it goes on. It's a brave, brilliant move, akin to letting a whole song play when most mainstream filmmakers would use a few familiar chords.
Even more inspiring, and maybe the best reason to love "Bobby," is the thought that some of Lindsay Lohan's fans might hear Kennedy speak for the first time. If Estevez errs on the side of hagiography -- a final montage is devoid of pictures of the ruthless young Bobby working with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, for example -- he can be thanked for introducing a new generation to the most valued and enduring underpinnings of the myth. What's more, he provides a chastening reminder to the rest of us of our own lost, best selves, and a time when American political culture was still relatively untainted by cynicism, resignation and apathy.
As someone once said, people come and people go. But sometimes -- for better or, too often, for worse -- something happens.
Bobby (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, drug content and a scene of violence.