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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

20 November

Robert Kennedy born, 1925

On this day in 1925, Robert Kennedy was born. The seventh child and third son of Joseph Kennedy Sr – who had made a fortune out of brokering deals with Hollywood studios and then importing whisky into post-Prohibition America – Robert was, like his father, not particularly academic but, having been gifted a good education by his socially and politically ambitious father, made it to Harvard, then went on to law school.

Thanks to the manoeuvring of his father, Robert rose quickly, working first at the US Department of Justice, then for scourge-of-the-communists Joe McCarthy, pausing to help mastermind his brother John’s campaign to become a US senator.

His campaigns against union corruption and organised crime made his name, and in 1960 he was made Attorney General by his brother, now President, which was the sort of dynastic nepotism that the Kennedys were famous for. He was in many respects the power behind the JFK throne – no Attorney General since has had closer access to the president, or was consulted on so many aspects of policy – notably foreign policy crises in Berlin and Cuba.

He was an effective scourge of the mafia, sought to rein in the power of FBI boss J Edgar Hoover and continued his campaigns against union corruption. But he became best known for his championing of the civil rights movement, as represented by Martin Luther King Jr.

After his brother’s assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s surprise decision not to stand for re-election, Robert joined the presidential race in 1968. However he was assassinated while on the campaign trail, by Sirhan Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian who had become enraged by RFK’s support for Israel.

Thus a great campaigner for civil rights at home was laid low by his perceived stance against civil rights in a foreign land.

Bobby (2006, dir: Emilio Estevez)

Though the tagline – “He saw wrong and tried to right it. He saw suffering and tried to heal it…” etc etc – is bordering on the hagiographic, Emilio Estevez’s film is not in the business of canonising Robert Kennedy, or even of painting a picture of the man. Instead it’s a portrait of the times in which he lived, through the lives of the various people who are in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, on the day he died in 1968.

Structured like 1932’s Grand Hotel, which assembled a starry cast headed by Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore, Bobby takes a similarly starry assembly and gives each member a neat vignette tailored to their strengths.

So Anthony Hopkins burbles, William H Macy winces, Laurence Fishburne intones, Heather Graham undresses, Ashton Kutcher dudes about. Only Lindsay Lohan seems to be actually doing any acting outside her comfort zone (but then Lohan has talent).

There is a lot to like, and if you don’t happen to like whoever is on screen, there’ll be another vignette, another set of actors along in a few minutes.

Revelations on the way include watching Demi Moore and Sharon Stone without the usual “years younger” make-up on – they look terrible but they are meant to look terrible. Moore plays a boozy old Liz Taylor-alike soak, and Stone is a slutty beautician and pulls a whole array of compost-heap faces – she is particularly fabulous.

Director Estevez has called in a lot of favours, in other words, including one from his father, Martin Sheen, who also turns up. Estevez’s brilliance consists in hiding, just, the fact that we’re watching little more than cameos – it’s the no-name actors who provide the actual dramatic heft.

Weaving through all those stories of star and non-star alike are Estevez’s themes: the collapse of the post-war liberal consensus, the death of progress, the arrival of identity politics, moral relativism, the personal as political – the postmodern world in other words.

And just when you’re beginning to wonder whether all these various strands, themes and people are just going to flap about on screen in an unconnected way, Estevez starts to pull them all together as he engineers us towards the pantry and the moment of RFK’s assassination. Suddenly the tension peaks, it all makes sense, it’s all rather sad, it’s all rather horrible. Bobby is a very impressive film.

Why Watch?

  • Emilio Estevez’s best film as director, star, whatever
  • All-star casts don’t come much more all-star
  • William H Macy is wincing because Sharon Stone is actually cutting his hair
  • You wanna see Shia LaBeouf naked – ok, maybe not

Bobby – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2013

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