September 23, 2007Belatedly Bobby -- It's great not to be a movie critic and to have to see every movie when it first comes out, pass judgment publicly, figure out what to approve and what to pan. It must get to be quite a chore, and maybe that's the reason movie critics sometimes seem as if their jobs are nearly unbearable and attack certain films with rage and hatred that seem out of proportion with the subject at hand. It's so much nicer to be free to see whatever movies you want, when you want, enjoy them or despise them as you wish, or just avoid them altogether if they look like not your cup of tea.
I'm happy to be out of season, out of style, out of step with popular culture. I recently saw Emilio Estevez' movie Bobby a year or so after it came out. I approached it reluctantly, not sure I wanted to see it at all. I know how this thing ends, I thought. I really couldn't bear to see the shooting played out one more time, to relive yet again that unspeakable tragedy, the shots that took out Kennedy and gave us instead President Richard Nixon with his "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam, which was of course utterly fraudulent. I couldn't imagine how the director could redeem the display one more time of that awful moment, that horrible loss. It's now nearly 40 years in the past and still hard to even approach.
Even though I finally decided to take the plunge and look at Bobby I still remained reluctant through much of the film, really dreading the end, not wanting it to come. But finally in the end, when I had seen it, and seen how Estevez treated the subject, I felt like it was a triumph, a monument. I take my hat off to the young director.
I felt like Estevez' did manage to redeem his decision to shine the spotlight one more time on that tragedy, to offer something that made one feel some compensation for having had to think about that awful event one more time. The way Estevez did it was to use Kennedy's own words spoken in the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King's only a short time before his own. They are fine words, so real and strong, that hearing them really does help to ease the pain of that absurd loss. Estevez uses footage of Kennedy from the time to recreate a kind of politics that is now virtually extinct. We see in action a real leader, one who inspires love and passion in his audience, his community, and who clearly loves them back. Like the rest of America, this man had seen the hope and excitement of the early '60s destroyed by murders, but with him the death of JFK was not only the death of that hope and that administration, it was the murder of his brother, the destruction of his own life path. Through the despair, he gained a spiritual depth and his personal suffering gave him empathy for the suffering of others. Though a rich man himself, he gained a real feeling for the down and out, and they felt it and responded to him.
Kennedy would have been president, no doubt, if he hadn't been shot. With the victory in California, he was clearly on his way. But his presidency was vetoed and we were given Nixon instead, and now we have all the chicks hatched during Nixon's criminal reign, Rove, Rumsfeld, Cheney, even Senior Bush himself was promoted within the establishment by Nixon, who was sponsored originally in his criminal career by George Herbert Walker Bush's father Prescott. This is indeed, as Robert Dole said, the Age of Nixon, and it began in the '60s with a string of murders, JFK, Martin Luther King, RFK. They were all murders we are told were committed by lone nuts, meaningless acts of violence by people who had no connection to anything or anyone. We are discouraged from thinking in terms of "conspiracy", i.e. people working together in secret, though that is the way every corporation is run, the way most enterprises have always been run and the way most political change takes place.
We are persuaded that these are all meaningless, disconnected murders and those who look for connections are deemed conspiracy nuts, and yet when you look at that history there is a meaningful connection between them all. They do represent historical change, a movement, but not a popular movement, a movement of invisible hands.
Now decades hence, deep into the age of Nixon, in the pit where we are left after the nearly complete dismantling of the New Deal, the solid establishment and consolidation of the warfare state, the words of Bobby Kennedy seem a distant echo. How long has it been since we've seen a politician who speaks with sincerity, with real passion and concern for the problems of the people, who speaks to the people at all? I ended up feeling that Bobby was a great movie, a real epic. It was one of those movies that is more than just a movie, but is a political action itself. It was a parade of cameo appearances of heavyweight actors who lend their presence to the film portraying ordinary nameless people, in a collective gesture of support for the message of the film, which is essentially the message of RFK himself, what he meant to America, what his loss represents, where it has left us 40 years later, and how his message is still resonant and as desperately needed in America as it was then. Besides its content as a movie, it was a statement of support for what Kennedy stood for by all of the people in the cast, people like Anthony Hopkins (an executive producer of the film), Harry Belafonte, Martin Sheen, Demi Moore, Lawrence Fishburne, Helen Hunt, Sharon Stone, Ashton Kutcher, Lindsay Lohan, and others. It was a collective statement in support of a kind of politics and idealism that is all but stamped out in America today, and maybe forever. But the film raises the hope that it could come back, that the message resonates as powerfully as ever.
I asked a filmmaker friend if he had seen the film and he said he hadn't and that he had perhaps been influenced by the fact that the critics panned the film so mercilessly. It made me again very happy to be so out of touch with the mainstream that I hadn't even realized the movie had been declared to be a disaster and had as a result seen it free of prejudgment. I looked up some reviews and found that my friend was right. The critics were scathing. They spit out such seething hatred for this piece of work you would think Estevez had personally stolen their babies and roasted them for dinner. Rolling Stone's film reviewer Peter Travers dismissed it scornfully as "insipid ineptitude." Jason Clark in slantmagazine.com, scorched it with violently caustic sarcasm. "The movie has no real story to speak of, just a series of barely connected vignettes over the 24-hour period before RFK's demise, only some of which have anything to do with the ever-changing political climate of the 1960s..." Estevez' ideas of how to make the movie apparently did not fit with the way they thought the movie should be made. Hopefully they will get a chance to make their own versions soon. But in any case, I was very glad I had seen the film myself before I read them.
Unlike Oliver Stone's JFK, Estevez' Bobby doesn't get into anything about who shot RFK or why, which worked elegantly and perfectly for the film, which rises above all those issues. It deals only with the fact of Kennedy's existence, his meaning to a very heartbroken country at the time and his loss. That's more than enough for any movie and Estevez did it beautifully in my opinion.
For those who wish to look into the history of that assassination, or even to commit the cardinal sin of looking at it in relation to a whole series of assassinations that changed the course of history at that time, there are plenty of things to look at and plenty of questions to ask. Although Sirhan, the convicted assassin, was purported to be just another in a series of lone nuts unconnected to anything and moved by issues that were on the fringe of what was tearing the country apart at the time, there are problems with the official story. Sirhan confessed to the crime, but later recanted. He no doubt shot, but he was in front of Kennedy, and Los Angeles Coroner Thomas Noguchi, who conducted the autopsy said the shots that killed Kennedy came from behind. Sirhan had an eight-shot pistol. Four shots hit Kennedy, but five others in the room were shot, more shots than could have come from Sirhan's gun. In the coroner's autobiography years after the incident he wrote, "Until more is precisely known … the existence of a second gunman remains a possibility. Thus, I have never said that Sirhan Sirhan killed Robert Kennedy." (see Crime Library) For a theoretical framework for why seeking or finding conspiracies behind political murders is perfectly rational behavior, see
Assassination as a Tool of Fascism, by John Judge.
-- David Cogswell