Thursday, November 17, 2011

'Bobby' Tried to Do Too Much

I've known for a long time that Martin Sheen is a talented guy.

And he has fathered a bunch of talented children.

So it really is unfortunate that perhaps the least talented of the group, his son Charlie, has been the one who has been getting most of the attention lately.

It wasn't that way five years ago.

On this day in 2006, Charlie's older brother, Emilio Estevez, was the center of attention. He had written and directed a movie about the day that Robert Kennedy was assassinated called "Bobby." You can believe me when I say it was an ambitious undertaking.

Even though it was about a real event, it was a fictional story with an ensemble cast — not unlike the style one often sees in the works of Robert Altman, although Altman doesn't typically use actual events as the backdrops for his movies — and there were times, frankly, when I felt the story was a bit bogged down by all the characters and subplots that viewers had to follow.

Perhaps it should have been more like "Shampoo," a successful movie from the mid–1970s that used the contentious 1968 presidential election as its backdrop — fewer characters with, consequently, fewer plot lines.

It also reminded me, in some ways, of Oliver Stone's "JFK," which made its debut 15 years earlier. I had that sensation early in the movie.

If you've seen "JFK," you know that it opens with period film footage of President Kennedy while President Eisenhower's famous warning about the "military–industrial complex" was played in the background. In "Bobby," archival footage was seen while recordings of Robert Kennedy giving speeches — his announcement of his candidacy for president, his speech the night Martin Luther King was assassinated — played in the background, and I couldn't help wondering if Stone's film had inspired "Bobby," to any extent.

Perhaps Estevez was inspired by both Stone and Altman.

And maybe the Altman approach was necessary, given the many conflicts in American society at that time. But I felt that "Bobby" became top–heavy with all the individual story lines — not, it can be plausibly argued, unlike life.

On the morning of September 11, for example, everyone was busy with his or her own life — until airplanes were hijacked and crashed into buildings. Then people stopped what they were doing, and everyone's attention was riveted to the same thing.

It is the same with any other big event in modern times. The technological advances of the 20th century have that power over us — to force us to re–focus on a dime. The things we were doing or that demanded our immediate attention didn't go away. They just got put on the shelf.

It was an admirable effort, though, and it was one in which Estevez was able to enlist the assistance of his distinguished father (who played a campaign donor married to Helen Hunt). The cast also included Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne, Harry Belafonte, Christian Slater, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore and others.

My advice would have been to pare it down a little. One or two of the subplots could have been discarded, allowing the film to focus more on the unifying event. Besides, the film already had plenty of star power.

Father and son share a high regard for Robert F. Kennedy — even though Estevez, like me, was only a child when Kennedy was killed. He may have relied, to an extent, on his memories of that time, but he was barely 6 when Kennedy was assassinated so his memories can't be that great. My guess is that most of what he knows of that time is actually what he has been told by others.

But be that as it may ...

In spite of its drawbacks, "Bobby" told a tale of a time that young Americans have never known and many older Americans seem to have forgotten. And perhaps, as I say, so many characters were needed to provide a vivid portrait of that time in American history.

It effectively re–created a period when events seemed to be spiraling out of control. With an increasingly unpopular war dominating the headlines and a new generation of leaders being gunned down on what appeared to be a regular basis, there was an unmistakable sense that no one was in charge.

(The closest example I can think of in modern times was the waning months of the George W. Bush administration.)

"Bobby" did tend, as I say, to get bogged down by the many subplots — which I concluded, even before I had completed my first viewing of the movie, were designed to illustrate the many levels on which the great divide existed.

There was a racial divide, as illustrated by the apparently racist attitude of the kitchen manager (Christian Slater) who wouldn't permit his minority employees to take time off to vote.

There was a gender divide. Sometimes it was shown in heroic and self–sacrificing stories, such as the one in which a young girl (Lindsay Lohan) was marrying a friend (Elijah Wood) to keep him from going to Vietnam. Reportedly, that was based on a true story — Estevez said a woman told him, while he was writing the movie, that she actually married two friends for that purpose.

Other times, it was much more self–serving, even surprisingly so. At points, it gave the appearance of a soap opera.

The hotel manager (William H. Macy) was cheating on his aging but still attractive wife (Sharon Stone) with a young hotel switchboard operator (Heather Graham). Sheen's middle–aged campaign donor and his much younger wife struggled to overcome the issues in their marriage. Estevez himself played the part of the husband/manager of a boozy lounge singer (Demi Moore) intent on launching a comeback of sorts in Las Vegas.

There was the alienation of the young — the "never trust anyone over 30" crowd — who sought answers to problems from their contemporaries rather than older authority figures. In the 1960s, such answers were often said to be found through drug use, and two campaign workers (Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf) were seen experimenting with acid with the help of a drug dealer (Ashton Kutcher).

They were all going about their lives — until the climactic moment when Kennedy was shot — and the audience could see all the characters gathered in one place, some of whom were injured, others were tending to their wounds, overcoming their differences — not unlike the many stories that were told of the heroic deeds that took place in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon or aboard Flight 93.

Above it all could be heard the inspirational words spoken by Bobby Kennedy after Martin Luther King's murder — made all the more poignant by the realization that Kennedy himself would die a violent death only two months later.

It was clear that Estevez had a passion for his subject. Perhaps he learned from "Bobby" that it's true what they say.

Less is more.