Bobby opens Thursday throughout the Triangle.
When an actor sets out to make a movie about politics, what ends up predominating—acting or politics? If the answer to that isn't blazingly obvious, you might want to consult Emilio Estevez's Bobby, a sprawling drama about the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Though featuring 22 name performers who act up a storm, the film almost makes it seem that the cultural storms of 1968—including the one that swirled around Bobby Kennedy—had little to do with politics.
While that may sound entirely risible, there's no questioning Estevez's sincerity. He was 6 when RFK was gunned down and his father, longtime Kennedy diehard Martin Sheen, took him to the scene of the crime, L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel, not long after it happened. That memory was one of the things that prompted Estevez to write and direct Bobby. Another, apparently, was the impending demise of the Ambassador, where some of the film's scenes were shot even as demolition was beginning.
Much as Oliver Stone believes that John Kennedy's assassination spelled the end of America's innocence, Estevez seems to believe the same of Bobby's. It was the last bright, shining moment before the forces of cynicism and corruption gained the upper hand. I have no problem with Stone's or Estevez's theses. Mixtures of perplexing fact and insinuating sentiment, they are essentially modern myths, and myths are what most big American movies have always traded in.
Yet the film that Estevez derives from his mythic germ is curiously bifurcated. On one hand, Bobby wants to be seen as "about" Bobby Kennedy in some crucial way; in its opening and closing segments it gives us emotional word-and-image montages which (unfortunately) resemble the syrupy infomercials that now clutter every political campaign. On the other hand, the movie devotes most of its length to the intersecting stories of the fictional characters played by those 22 actors, stories with only the most tangential connections to Kennedy and the political battles he was fighting when he was gunned down.
The kind of large-ensemble drama that Estevez undertakes here may go back to Grand Hotel, but the modern paradigm—one with definite political overtones—comes from Nashville and similar Altman films. Alas, last year's Crash is but one example of how "Altmanesque" has recently come to mean portentousness and sheer volume (of storylines and characters) substituting for dramatic acuity.
I hasten to add that Bobby is not nearly as heavy-handed or unctuously self-congratulatory as Paul Haggis' egregious Oscar winner. And several of its storylines do have implicit political dimensions. One, which Estevez reportedly based on a true story, features Lindsay Lohan as a bride-to-be about to marry Elijah Wood to keep him from being sent to Vietnam. In another, an atrociously bewigged Ashton Kutcher plays a drug dealer who gives two young Kennedy volunteers their first LSD trip. In the hotel's bowels, chef Laurence Fishburne deals with a staff of competing blacks and Latinos, while kitchen manager Christian Slater runs afoul of higher-ups when he tries to keep his workers from disrupting routine by voting.
However, the storylines which have the greatest emotional resonance are those involving female characters (each occasions strong work by an actress): Demi Moore as an alcoholic nightclub singer playing a stand at the Ambassador; Helen Hunt as a rich man's wife doing her best to keep up appearances; and Sharon Stone and Heather Graham as two hotel employees competing over philandering William H. Macy.
Estevez surely deserves credit for the skill with which these parts are written and the performances directed. And you could say the film makes a case for "the personal being political" in subtly reflecting on the particular forms of oppression that American women endured in 1968. But what exactly does this have to do with Bobby Kennedy? Was he a typical chauvinist (to use the vernacular of the day), fathering child after child on Ethel while fooling around with Marilyn Monroe, or was he somehow "born again," regarding feminism as he was regarding the Vietnam War? The film doesn't even begin to approach these questions.
As a stylistic exercise, it is also a perplexingly mixed bag. To an extent, the film's production designers, costumers and stylists have done a fine job conjuring up a particular moment in history, with all its once-chic but now-moldy styles in decors, clothes and hair. Yet the movie's style might have productively been brought into line with these elements, and it's not. By using lots of Steadicam and other contemporary visual mannerisms, Estevez misses a great chance to evoke 1968 through an almost subliminal deployment of that era's cinematic language, which is certainly different but still not terribly dated. (The Graduate was filmed partly in the Ambassador.)
Still, the film's most astonishing blind spots are suggested by two names: Eugene McCarthy and Sirhan Sirhan. Neither has hardly any presence in Bobby; McCarthy's simply a name that flashes on the screen when we learn that Kennedy has beaten him in California's Democratic presidential primary, and Sirhan's merely a shadowy figure who slips into the hotel kitchen a few minutes later and starts shooting. Noting this makes me realize that the film has two audiences. Those who, as I do, remember the events of June 4-5, 1968, can only be flabbergasted that Bobby would effectively ignore McCarthy and Sirhan. For viewers too young to remember, a little history may be in order.
By 1968, the Vietnam War was increasingly unpopular in the United States and Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy had emerged as the leading peace candidate, spearheading a campaign for which many long-haired students went to the barber in order to appear "neat and clean for Gene." While Bobby Kennedy's conversion to an antiwar stance may well have been sincere, it split the peace forces. This tension could in fact have made for a potent dramatic dialectic in Bobby, had Estevez allowed McCarthy supporters a place in his story. That he didn't adds to the impression that he's intent only on making a plaster saint out of RFK, rather than exploring the complexity and open questions of his actual political legacy.
Sirhan, Kennedy's assassin, was a Palestinian born in Jerusalem who staged his attack on the first anniversary of the Six Day War in revenge, he said, for RFK's support of Israel in that conflict. Like parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq wars symbolized by McCarthy's candidacy, this motive on the killer's part connects directly to explosive issues facing America at the present moment.
Bobby Kennedy was all about political engagement. If he were still around, I can't help think that he would want his story told in a way that asked the maximum number of tough political questions. That Estevez has chosen to offer up instead a gauzy hagiography leaves us with yet another soft-headed liberal message film. Granted, it's also a sturdy showcase for a fine group of actors, but that's small compensation for the more probing, resonant and provocative film that its title promised.
The Fountain opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle.
Director Darren Aronofsky started his career with a one-two punch that any young filmmaker might envy. His 1998 debut, pi, a scrappy, mystically themed low-budget indie, won the Best Director prize at Sundance. Only a year later, the much more generously funded Requiem for a Dream, a startlingly inventive depiction of drug addiction based on the writings of Hubert Selby Jr., premiered at Cannes and went on to win rapturous reviews as well as Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.
But thereafter Aronofksy hit a streak of bad luck. The Fountain, his third film, was to be an enormously budgeted sci-fi extravaganza starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. But time wore on, Pitt dropped out, the budget got cut back, Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz came aboard, more time passed, the film's opening was repeatedly pushed back and ... well, this sort of indie-gone-Hollywood story rarely has a happy ending, right?
As word from the Venice and Toronto festivals suggested, The Fountain is at once overblown and underwhelming. A story of "love everlasting," it features Jackman and Weisz as lovers connected by reincarnation through three lives: as a Spanish queen and a conquistador in search of the Tree of Life in Mayan Mexico; as a medical researcher and a dying writer in the present day; and as the residents of a future century where intergalactic travel and Buddhist meditation postures seem to combine.
Although visually elaborate in the glossy manner of perfume ads, all of this suggests a cross-wiring of vapid New Age spiritualism and the kind of disconnected, dramatically shallow science fiction found in comic books and graphic novels. The end result makes me think that Aronofsky's less adept at concocting his own material than in illustrating another writer's visions, as he did in Requiem, by far the best of his films to date.