Monday, 22 January 2007

Bobby (2006)

And a liberal conspiracy is born

It’s a sign of how low George W Bush’s popularity has plunged that Emilio Estevez, a former Brat Pack actor of the 1980s who was reduced to starring in the Mighty Ducks movies, has resurfaced to become a director, persuading 23 other top Hollywood actors to star in a film that is nothing less than an full frontal attack on the president’s handling of the Iraq invasion and occupation. At this point, you’d probably throw up your hands, give a good laugh, and move on to the next review. But please bear with me. It’s easy to expect Hollywood liberals to make a political movie out of good intentions, but fall completely and utterly flat due to either incompetence, arrogance, a tone-deaf script, or any combination of the three.

Yet to my surprise, Emilio Estevez has probably pulled off a coup here. Bobby works well precisely because it doesn’t mention Bush or Iraq at all, and yet somehow compels the audience to connect the dots inevitably, like an involuntary muscle twitch. Theoretically, Bobby is about an ordinary day in 1968 – an “interesting time” in history, with the civil rights movement making its hugest gains, a strongly grassroots movement protesting against a wasteful and unjustified war that had killed too many Americans and Iraqis Vietnamese, and the hippie subculture spreading its message of universal love and peace for all to the wider population. It’s also a special day: the California primaries to decide the candidate for the Democrat nominee for President would be held that day, and senator Robert Kennedy was widely expected to win California and go on to win the Presidency, pull the troops out of Iraq Vietnam, heal the racial divide once and for all, and possibly lift hundreds of thousand out of poverty. Robert Kennedy would be shot and killed by a crazed gunman later that night at the Ambassador Hotel.

Through 24 characters who live and work at the hotel, Bobby is a film that evokes the optimism and sense of social justice of 1968, despite the very bad state of the nation then. There are the rank and file employees in the hotel and their managers. There are guests of the hotel, each struggling with their own problems and tribulations. And there are the campaign staff of the senator, who have set up their campaign headquarters at the Ambassador Hotel. Estevez flits from character to character, vignette to vignette, plumbing their emotional depths, private tragedies, and minor epiphanies. The director manages even to evoke the ghost of Robert Altman, working in very obliquely issues of class and race divides, turning the Ambassador Hotel at times into an American Gosford Park. With more than half the characters working at the hotel or for the primary campaign, you’ll be fascinated with the hidden world of the servants, with the plays of power and relationships between the many-layered hotel hierarchy that is further complicated by issues of race and the Vietnam war.

For a movie that’s based on the 24 hours at the hotel before Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Estevez devotes much screentime to historical reels of the senator’s actual campaign tour around America, as well as a lengthy voice montage of his best and most idealistic speeches. For an ensemble movie, Estevez lets almost every character deliver a really grand or profound speech. Ordinarily, this is a recipe for a disaster, but somehow it all fits together, because of the well-written script. The best performances, speeches and storylines that you should look out for are from Laurence Fishburne as a head chef who is resented by the Latino busboys; Demi Moore and Emilio Estevez as an alcoholic fading diva and her depressed manager husband; Shiaf LeBouf, Nick Cannon and Ashton Kutcher as two young Kennedy campaign volunteers who spend the afternoon at a hippie drug dealer’s room; and Sharon Stone’s portrayal of a beautician married to a manager at the hotel.

Fortunately though, the balance is just right: watching this movie, you realise how easily it could have gone wrong with its liberal politics and an overload of big-name stars giving grand speeches. And then you realise that this movie didn’t just turn out all right, but is a great success and an inspiring film to boot. And all this is credit to the directing and writing skills of Emilio Estevez. The movie puts forth a convincing case that all is not lost, that idealism is necessary even for these dark times, and that the world will be a better place if we place more value on the lives of others – and should be watched just for that.

First published at incinemas on 25 January 2007

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