The Violence of Institutions
There is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.
—Robert F. Kennedy, “On the Mindless Menace of Violence,” Cleveland, Ohio (5 April 1968)
Despite its title, Bobby is not about Bobby Kennedy. It is instead concerned with a diverse group of individuals staying at L.A.‘s Ambassador Hotel on 4 June 4 1968, the day Kennedy was assassinated. As their separate stories overlap and occasionally collide, Emilio Estevez’s very sincere but occasionally flat-footed movie remembers RFK with reverence, nostalgic for a promise unfulfilled.
With Kennedy serving as a symbol for what might have been, Bobby illustrates the problems he identifies (he appears in archival footage throughout the film). Some of these illustrations are literal: when Kennedy laments the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam war, the film provides an instance of a young hotel patron recently drafted; his frustration with ongoing, institutionalized poverty and racism finds shape in the experiences of black and Latino kitchen workers at the Ambassador.
The film’s most effective moments however, occur without such heavy-handed framing. Scene by scene, the film is frequently commendable, even excellent. But just as often, plotlines slow the momentum, which is, of course, premised on a progressive moral argument rather than a narrative resolution. The film ends as you know it will, with the assassination, and more specifically, with the famous image of the busboy cradling Kennedy’s head. And its introduction of José (Freddy Rodriguez) as he begins his workday in the kitchen, establishes at least one connection with recorded history.
José is disappointed almost as soon as he arrives at the hotel, learning that he’s been assigned a double shift without his knowledge, and so he’‘’ be unable to use his tickets to the Dodgers game that evening, the game that will become Don Drysdale’s sixth consecutive shutout. Resigned to his fate, if frustrated, José is spurred to increasing resentment by his friend Miguel (Jacob Vargs). Seated round a table with other kitchen workers, Miguel spouts off in front of their boss, Edward (Laurence Fishburne). “We’re the new niggers,” Miguel declares. “Better get used to it.” Edward looks bemused and understanding at once. “You’ve got a right to your anger,” he tells Miguel. “I had anger, after Dr. King was killed, anger like you can’t even imagine.” But still, Edward argues, Miguel must do his job, and specifically, he must do his job for Edward, who demands efficiency and dedication. While they all know racism is hateful and infuriating, Edward explains the strategies he’s developed for getting what he needs while allowing “white folks” to feel “like they’re the great emancipators, like it was theirs to give in the first place.”
Miguel continues to fume, but Edward is right, practically speaking. There’s no immediate remedy for prejudice and abuse in the small space of the Ambassador hierarchy, or even in the layout of neighborhoods in L.A. The kitchen staff grumbles and rolls their eyes at the bullying and blatantly racist catering manager, Timmons (Christian Slater), who doesn’t want to give any of them time off to go vote in the day’s primary. Why bother, he reasons, as most of them are illegal and can’t vote, while the others will use the time to engage in less productive activities, because those Mexicans, they’re all the same.
When hotel manager Paul (William H. Macy) catches wind of Timmons’ behavior, he fires him on the spot. At first, he appears a decent guy, even noble as he takes this stand in the name of workers he doesn’t actually see during the day. But Paul has his own troubles, as he introduces one of several stories in the film that focus on marital woes. His wife Miriam (Sharon Stone) works as the hotel hairdresser, happy enough to chat with her clients as she combs and cuts their coifs. Her insistence that Paul is a good husband and father is put to a test when she learns of his affair with a hotel switchboard operator (Heather Graham). The fact that she’s voicing her belief to the alcoholic singer Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore) makes for a pointed comparison: Virginia has been fighting with her husband Tim (Estevez) throughout the day. “People come to see me because they love me,” she slurs, spectacularly. “If I want to have a fucking drink, then I’m going to have a fucking drink because I deserve it.” Tim, holding their lapdog, looks aptly beleaguered.
These meltdowns—at least one destined to be reframed by the assassination—is inverted by the renewal of devotion experienced by the anxiously insecure Samantha (Helen Hunt) and her gentle, depressed, and very wealthy husband Jack (Martin Sheen). The most hopeful plotline concerns a marriage about to be, between William (Elijah Wood) and Diane (Lindsay Lohan, who is very good here). As they talk about the chapel wedding to be performed that evening, they worry that it’s for the “wrong” reason, that is, to keep him from going to Vietnam (as married men are typically sent to stations in Germany rather than front lines in Southeast Asia). But over the course of the day, they find they’re also falling in love. While it’s a little too “pretty to think so,” the kids look so sincere and so desperate to do the right thing, that you’re at least a little relieved to see them feel better about their plan (a plan that speaks to the draft’s effect on individuals’ thinking about the war, especially after the Tet Offensive).
Still another set of parallel plots is established in the friendships of retired hotel doorman John Casey (Anthony Hopkins) and his chess game (and philosophical debate) partner Nelson (Harry Belafonte), and two young Youth For Kennedy workers (Shia LeBeouf and Brian Geraghty). As the older men phrase their questions and desires in terms of social justice and personal fulfillment, the boys seek “good times” with the help of a drug dealer staying at the hotel (Ashton Kutcher). “What are you really looking for?” asks the long-haired Fisher (of men?). And with that, he offers up sugar cubes with drips of enlightenment, accompanied by the clichéd soundtrack choice of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”
As earnest as it wants to be, Bobby includes the expected youthful idealists as well, in the form of a local team of buoyant Kennedy volunteers, headed by the very dedicated Wade (Joshua Jackson). He and his second, Dwayne (Nick Cannon), discuss their dreams for the future, even as Dwayne, like Edward, remembers his heartbreak over Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s assassination just two months earlier.
At times the cast looks like a collection of “cool kids,” or a set of actors who want to believe in a project. And Estevez gets credit for his dedication and passion, even if the execution is imperfect. While these many plots vary in effectiveness and banality, the finale—Kennedy’s arrival the hotel and the violence that follows—is undeniably moving (even if the use of “The Sound of Silence” is, again, clumsy). As the crowd gathered in the ballroom sees all too plainly, hopes run up against disappointment abruptly. The film looks back with sadness and frustration, drawing clear connections to current events (the war in Iraq, troubled elections, continuing racial tensions), but also a sort of hope, battered and half-forgotten. “This too afflicts us all.”