“LORD, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is!
Behold, thou hast made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in thy sight.
Surely every man stands as a mere breath!
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ 14Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
This is one of those imperfect films in which it is important to recognize and honor the intent of its creator, in this case Emilio Estevez, who both wrote and directed it. Bobby is not a biographical film—no actor portrays the Senator, instead we see many TV images of him—but rather a recalling of what we were as a people in the Sixties, and what we lost on that dreadful night of June 4/5, 1968. Although he lacks the finesse of the recently deceased Robert Altman, the master of ensemble cast films, Mr. Estevez has assembled a stellar cast that show the lives of twenty-two fictional characters who were in the Ambassador Hotel on that fateful day “when the music died.” Some of the vignettes are better realized than others, all of them meant to show the impact of the death of the man who might have become our President had he lived.
Some of the characters are: retired doorman John Casey (Anthony Hopkins) and former employee Nelson (Harry Belafonte) who play chess all day in the lobby. Hotel manager Paul Ebbers (William H. Macy) is so upset at the bigotry of his food manager Timmons (Christian Slater) that he tells him this will be his last day. Married to Miriam (Sharon Stone), who is in charge of the hotel’s beauty and hair salon, Paul is carrying on an affair with a switchboard operator. The relationship of the hotel’s fading star, singer Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore), with her husband/manager Tim Fallon (Emilio Estevez) is rapidly deteriorating. There is more hope that Jack Stevens (Martin Sheen) and his wife Samantha (Helen Hunt) will be able to rekindle their relationship. Just beginning a married relationship are Diane (Lindsay Lohan) and her college classmate William (Elijah Wood), but her motivation is altruistic, rather than romantic—by marrying him she will change his draft status, thus saving him from being shipped off to Vietnam. There are also vignettes of Kennedy campaign staffers, including two youngsters who drop out for the day when they buy LSD from the resident drug dealer, and the hard-working Dwayne (Nick Cannon) who will get to meet his idol that night.
Most touching is Mexican immigrant Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), upset at being forced to work an extra shift that night because of the huge celebration being planned for Senator Kennedy, at which it is hoped that he will be able to announce his victory in the California primary election. Jose has two tickets to the baseball game that night at which his baseball idol, Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale, might set a new record of pitching shutout games. Jose trades remarks lamenting their underclass status with head chef Edward (Laurence Fishburne) and the other largely Mexican employees. Finally, instead of selling the precious tickets, he gives them to Edward, which evokes an act that feeds his soul, perhaps as much as if he had attended the game.
The film takes us back to a heady time almost forty years ago when we looked up to politicians as role models who would lead us in creating a more just and loving society. This is effectively evoked by the generous portions of the senator’s speeches heard over montages of newsreel clips of the carnage in Vietnam and the riots that shook our cities—the two main sources being the remarks he made to a largely black audience in Indianapolis on the night right of the murder of Dr. King, and then his speech on violence in America the next day in Cleveland, Ohio. These alone make the film worth seeing, even if we include the rather inane sequence of the acid trip.
1) What do the various vignettes reveal about the U.S. during the Sixties? What were the big issues dividing us then, and have we resolved them? What happened after April 5, 1968 that changed the way we regard politics and politicians?
2) Do you think that the filmmaker included the stories of the hotel kitchen staff to draw attention to the current debate over the status of immigrants in the US? How are most historical films really about current issues? As well as many science fiction films (see Children of Men)?
3) How is Edward’s reaction to Jose’s gift also an act of grace? In light of the labeling of the Kennedy era as “Camelot,” how is what Edward writes on the wall especially appropriate?
4) How are Jack Steven’s words to his wife Samantha also ones of grace (“You are more than your shoes and designer dress”)? How does our culture attempt to reduce women to what they buy and consume, so that we need to hear such words?
5) How is the interchange in the salon between Virginia Fallon and Miriam also one of grace? Miguel’s bringing the transistor radio for Jose?
6) What Simon and Garfunkel song is played during the montage of scenes of crowds and rioting? Compare this to the way Mike Nichols used the song in that quintessential Sixties film The Graduate. How are the songs lyrics still applicable to our society and the way we communicate with one another (or fail to—see Babel)?
7) How did you feel during the various episodes, knowing what would happen at 12:15 am that night/morning? Do you agree with those who have stated that if Senator Kennedy had lived, he would have been beat Nixon, thus changing radically the course of our history? How does this add to our sense of loss?
8) How did hearing the Senator’s voice over the montage of scenes that closed the film add to this sense of loss? What irony did you see in his phrase about violence,”…and yet it goes on, and on, and on”?
9) Reflect on this portion: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” From RFK’s “On the Death of Martin Luther king, Jr.” April 4. 1968
For RFK’s speech to the City Club of Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio on violence in America during April 5, 1968 (the day after MLK’s murder) go to: http://robertkennedy.8m.com/speeches.htm.