For progressives lifted, however temporarily, by the swell of a turning tide, Bobby can be seen clearly for what it is—an Airport movie with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy as the central calamity and an all-star cast deployed like multiple George Kennedys. Juggling some 22 main characters on June 4, 1968, in the hours leading up to RFK’s speech at the Ambassador Hotel and its tragic aftermath, actor-writer-director Estevez means to eulogize the hopes of a nation, showing the night’s impact on a group of hotel guests and staff cross-sectioned by age, race and class. But it’s the movie that ends up buried under its stifling good intentions and dire execution.
It falls to gentlemanly retired doorman Anthony Hopkins to acknowledge Bobby’s model, the prototypical subplot-a-palooza Grand Hotel—a stroke which screenwriter Estevez handles with characteristic subtlety. “Grand hotel,” the doorman says, adding helpfully: “It’s a line from the old Greta Garbo movie, Grand Hotel.” It’s also a line that, like most of Estevez’s head-smacking dialogue, should be preceded by a blinking neon sign warning, “Message Ahead.”
In the hotel kitchen—which will later serve as a killing ground—a staff divided between African-Americans and Latinos is more concerned with Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale’s shutout streak than the Kennedy rally that evening. The young firebrands resent the hotel’s white power structure, represented by nice-guy boss William H. Macy and racist Christian Slater; a contentious staff meeting prompts even-keeled chef Laurence Fishburne to deliver indigestible life-lesson homilies via his great-grandmama’s cobbler recipe.
As Estevez practically builds the Ambassador a new wing to accommodate his star-studded upstairs-downstairs subplots—finding vacancies for a self-sacrificing war bride (Lindsay Lohan!), a boozy nightclub singer (Demi Moore!) and even his dad Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt as bourgeois vacationers—his attempt to hit every generational touchstone turns the movie into a docent’s tour of Sixties discord. If someone mentions a movie, it will be The Graduate; if someone takes LSD, the soundtrack will blare Donovan. If someone mentions art, it will be to disparage the painting they bought of a soupcan, har har.
All this retrophilia is turned into instant camp by a veritable telethon of celebrity walk-ons—and that’s even before hippie-dippie Ashton Kutcher shows up in meth-addled-Muppet mode. (Moore fares even worse: her bitchy evocation of Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls is an early Christmas present to America’s drag queens.) Actors barge in like nosy neighbors borrowing cups of sugar. At the door—who could that soldier be? Why, hello, Elijah Wood!
Estevez’s on-the-nose direction boldfaces contemporary parallels that might have been alarming and illuminating if they hadn’t been superimposed so blatantly on the material. How blatantly? Try the voter registration coordinator who explains the ballots, carefully pointing out “what the folks down at IBM like to call ‘chads.’ ” Or the spelled-out references to an unpopular current war. Or the tensions concerning illegal immigrants. It may be, given Hollywood’s timidity about anything political, that the only way Estevez could get a movie made about the state of the union in 2006 was to set it in 1968. Perhaps only within the safe confines of a movie set almost four decades ago could the writer-director wedge in a mention of police stationed outside polling places in black voting districts—history as ancient as 2004. But he flattens his noble intent with a sledgehammer.
As cheesy as Bobby is, there’s never a moment its maker doesn’t brave the derision of cynics. In a few scenes—for example, the well-played exchanges between Joshua Jackson’s comradely campaign coordinator and Nick Cannon’s true-believer volunteer—the movie evokes the hope that many Americans feel briefly rekindled (and even more quickly doused) every four years. Estevez treats the shooting not just as the death of a dream but as the snuffing of an entire alternate future—an America untangled from Vietnam, untainted by Watergate and untroubled by civil-rights friction. In interviews, Estevez has mentioned meeting Kennedy as a child. The movie regards the candidate (who’s fully visible only in news clips) from the same mythic distance—as the back of a head or a heroic blur.
But doing so reduces Robert F. Kennedy to a one-dimensional symbol—a brand name for dashed liberal ideals, instead of a complex and flawed figure. A closing montage uses a recording of an eloquent speech Kennedy made shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—a man whom Kennedy, not five years earlier, had authorized the FBI to wiretap while serving as his brother’s pit-bull attorney general. We’ll never find out whether Bobby Kennedy would have become another Lincoln, a president capable of recognizing and acting on principles larger than himself. Nor will he disappoint us with a long sad decline into political careerism. In eulogizing King, Kennedy invoked Aeschylus, but Bobby’s worshipful what-iffing calls to mind nothing so much as A.E. Housman: “Now you will not swell the rout / Of lads that wore their honours out, / Runners whom renown outran / And the name died before the man.”