The intentions behind Emilio Estevez' "Bobby" -- a fictional drama with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, in 1968, as its somber backdrop -- ring out like radio waves from a pulsar. Kennedy, one of the most charismatic politicians in American history, reached out to a divided, troubled nation, one mired in an unpopular war. His ideas were at once radical and sensible, and he spoke plainly and eloquently in a way that few contemporary politicians would dare to, even if they knew how. Bobby Kennedy is the best president we never had, and just hearing his voice in "Bobby" -- the film uses lots of sound clips, as well as archival film footage -- raises spectral questions about what our country would be like today had he lived.
Estevez, who both wrote and directed the picture, clearly has strong, sturdy feelings for Kennedy: The movie's press notes tell us how the 6-year-old Estevez saw news of the shooting on television and ran to wake his father, Martin Sheen, who'd long been a Kennedy supporter. But Estevez' passion for his subject isn't enough to carry the movie: "Bobby" is a network of fictional subplots involving a revolving palette of characters, all of whom meet at the crossroads of the Ambassador Hotel, in Los Angeles, where the senator was shot just after his victory in the California primary. These characters include hotel employees, like a Latino kitchen worker (Freddy Rodgriguez) whose lowly station makes him the victim of the whims of his employer; a former doorman (Anthony Hopkins, who is also an executive producer of the film) who can't shake his memories of the hotel's earlier glory days; and an upper-level manager (William H. Macy) whose political ideals are unimpeachable but whose personal conduct is somewhat flawed.
But just when you think you've got a handle on the central characters in "Bobby," yet more of them appear: The thing is a little like the stateroom scene in "A Night at the Opera." There's a racist kitchen manager (Christian Slater), a tough-minded, hardworking hairdresser (Sharon Stone), a sous-chef who speaks like a statesman (Laurence Fishburne), an angry young campaign volunteer (Nick Cannon), and a hotel-switchboard operator who's just trying to get ahead in the world (Heather Graham). Other actors nestled in the movie's corners include Harry Belafonte (a friend of Bobby Kennedy's in real life), Elijah Wood, Lindsay Lohan, Demi Moore, and Ashton Kutcher as a stoner drug dealer who's graduated from pot to acid. (He even has little cavities in his front teeth, ostensibly from sucking all those sugar cubes.)
These characters interweave and intermingle at the Ambassador, sometimes motivated by selfishness and other times by surprising generosity. Tragedy will, of course, ultimately tie all their stories together. The problem is that most of those stories feel only vaguely formed -- there are so many characters that the movie barely has time to nourish our feelings for any of them. What's more, the picture is riddled with didactic civics lessons, tucked among the lines of dialogue like forest mushrooms. "More and more men keep coming home in body bags," intones one character, the words as flat as if they'd been written on a chalkboard.
A few performances stand out: Martin Sheen plays a rich but depressive stock broker married to a much younger woman (an overly tan, bony and blond Helen Hunt), and he has one lovely scene in which he turns a mini speech about the dangers of materialism into a love sonnet to his wife. Joy Bryant ("The Skeleton Key") has a small role as another hotel-switchboard operator, and Graham's best friend, but her character has so much vibrance that the movie seems to open up around her.
Estevez and his crew (including costume designer Julie Weiss) have taken care to get the period details right: The idealistic young men in "Bobby" wear crisply pressed straight-legged pants and trim jackets with ties; the young women wear neat skirts and low-heeled shoes, and their hair has been set in rollers. People who didn't live through the '60s often think of the era as all fringe and love beads, but through most of the decade, America's youth adhered to certain standards of formality and good grooming. The archival Kennedy clips aside, the excited radiance of these young characters' faces (and many of them are just extras) may be the best thing about "Bobby." When Estevez' camera glances across these youthful faces, he captures, without a word, the faith they had in the future Bobby Kennedy envisioned for them. What happened later -- the long hair, the tattered jeans, the escalating anger and frustration -- wasn't so much a fall from grace as a kind of falling out of love. With JFK and RFK gone, with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King gone, there seemed to be no saviors left. (And the country still had Nixon to look forward to.) The only thing for the young to do was to put on a uniform, very different from what their parents had worn, and get to work. There was no one to dress up for anymore.