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December 7, 2006

Emilio Estevez' Bobby

I was very moved and impressed by the movie Bobby, which we saw last night. It is not really about Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The director, Emilio Estevez, tries to depict the American people at a particular historical and political moment. He puts citizens at the center of his story. This is a very unusual and insightful approach to political fiction, and it's especially surprising to find in a Hollywood movie.

In the film, Robert Kennedy is shown only in real television footage and heard only in real recordings that sometimes play as voiceovers while the fictional events unfold. Estevez may have chosen this device out of admiration for Kennedy. But it has the effect of distancing the Senator; we only hear his public statements to crowds of people far from the scene of the movie, which is the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. We have no insight into his motives or feelings.

Although Bobby is far away, we are close to a bunch of ordinary Americans. Like the American people as a whole, they are old and senile, young and foolish, prejudiced and suspicious, idealistic and kind. They fight and they love one another. They register voters and drop acid. They make great music and stand by while their country carpet-bombs Vietnamese villages. In short, they combine flaws and virtues in numerous combinations that Estevez has obviously chosen to illustrate our vast range and complexity.

Estevez sees Bobby as a great leader and is deeply nostalgic for 1968. But why was Robert Kennedy so great that year? We know that he was a highly flawed human being. His words in the film are eloquent, but mainly because of the way they are juxtaposed with the action on screen. His speeches are not terribly well written, nor beautifully delivered.

Bobby was a great leader in 1968--so I believe, and so the movie suggests--not because he was a better person than everyone who holds public office today. He was great because many dedicated and talented people worked for him, and some of his staff are shown in the film. He was great because he represented several grand social movements: the civil rights struggle, the anti-war campaign, and especially mid-20th century liberalism. These movements were built from the grassroots up; they made it possible for national leaders to achieve greatness by using their ideas and rhetoric. Bobby was one of the last to do so, because all those movements were running down by the time of his final campaign.

Finally, Bobby was great because several million very diverse Americans, despite having much else on their minds, invested some hope in the man. He was a phenomenon, in other words, of something going on in the public. He didn't make history as much as he represented it. The movie brilliantly illustrates this by telling the stories of ordinary Americans while the Senator appears on their television screens and moves ever closer to the place where they happen to work. His tragedy is intensely moving just because it is about so much more than one politician.

December 7, 2006 9:07 AM | category: populism | Comments


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