Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bobby is the best picture of the year

So far. But I'm having a hard time believing there will be another movie in the coming months that will so move and impress me. I am both shellshocked and on a ridiculous high. (Stop reading if you want to go in with no more preconceived notions.)

Perhaps it's because I saw it on the heels of 24 hours of meaningful political change. Perhaps it's just because it is a finely crafted, superbly acted movie with an unapologetic conscience. Bobby, which opens on Thanksgiving (and couldn't be more perfectly timed), is wonderful drama. But more importantly, in this age of disenchantment, it has singlehandedly restored my faith in the potential of the United States of America.

This movie was a transporting and enlightening experience. It exists in 1968, but thematically it takes place today. "This country is on a perilous course," we hear Robert F. Kennedy say in one of the many audio and video clips that are gracefully woven throughout the movie, which is about the interplay of ordinary people at the Ambassador Hotel the night he is assassinated.

In voiceover at the beginning of the movie, we hear RFK say, "I am concerned that, at the end of it all, there will only be more Americans killed; more of our treasure spilled out; and because of the bitterness and hatred on every side of this war, more hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese slaughtered; so that they may say, as Tacitus said of Rome: 'They made a desert, and called it peace.' And I do not think that is what the American spirit is really all about."

It is a quotation 40 years old, and yet it seems newly born. This is true of the whole movie.

First: what a cast of interconnected talents! Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore, former doe-eyed brat packers, as middle-aged marrieds (she an alcoholic lounge singer, he her brushed-aside manager). Moore's real-life hubbie Ashton Kutcher as a God-chasing drug dealer. Estevez's father, Martin Sheen (who was a fervent RFK supporter in real life), as an upper-class mandarin and Sheen's Apocalypse Now co-star, Laurence Fishburne, as a chef in the hotel kitchen. Estevez's Mighty Ducks co-star, Joshua Jackson, all grown up as one of RFK's main campaigners, and Estevez's Young Guns II co-star, Christian Slater, as one of the heads of the kitchen. Boogie Nights co-stars William H. Macy and Heather Graham as adulterers.

There are more connections. And I'm not even mentioning Sharon Stone (as a hairdresser), Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood (who are getting married so he can avoid Vietnam), Shia LaBeouf and Nick Cannon (as campaigners), Helen Hunt (Sheen's wife), Freddy Rodríguez (a kitchen staffer), Anthony Hopkins (the doorman) and Harry Belafonte (his confidante) -- all great in their own ways in this movie. (I never thought I'd say this, but I enjoyed Helen Hunt!) Oscar nominations should go to Moore, Stone and Fishburne for their performances, which are truly supporting in every sense of the word. Estevez also deserves nominations, for his script and direction. The movie's art direction and cinematography (which seamlessly cuts between stock footage and staged footage) are also superior.

This movie will bring RFK to a whole new generation of Americans like myself, who have grown up in a time devoid of visionary politicians. Seeing footage of RFK's campaigning and speechmaking is spine-tingling. It made me tear up. This man was so sincere, so intent. Did they really make politicians like that?

As much as the movie lionizes RFK (and boy does it ever), it is not just pageantry. This is a movie about us...Americans...and our special habit of wallowing in the mundane while shooting for the stars. The essence of Bobby is made of quiet, gem-like scenes between characters. It's an Altman-esque experience, but with more direction and dialogue. Some of the dialogue approaches affectation, yes, but it is eloquent and services the story. How can I describe the delight of seeing Sharon Stone doing Demi Moore's hair, and the small but profound exchange between them? It's a wonderful scene performed by two aging bombshells. But here, they are character actors, and it is sublime.

The rest of the scenes are equally wonderful. All the characters are fully realized. We're never confused about who is who, and we grow to care about all of them. The common bond between these people is hope -- hope for a way to avoid Vietnam, hope for a way to save a marriage, hope for equality between races, hope for a brighter future -- and the investment of that hope in one man who promises to lead the way. We are small people, but together we can imbue a man with great momentum. Estevez begins the film with that great momentum -- you can feel it in the camerawork, in the buoyant score, in the alacrity of the characters. Change is coming.

Is it ever. Bobby is a tragedy, in many ways, and given that it is based around RFK's assassination, you may think the end is foretold. But the final sequence of the film is surprising and powerful -- surprising because it hinges not on the actual event but the alchemy of emotions surrounding it, and powerful because Estevez has earned our investment in RFK and these characters. Oh, what a cataclysm the assassination must've been for anyone alive and cognizant in June of '68. It is shattering merely experiencing it via celluloid 40 years later.

I was weeping at the film's end. But for what? The brutal assassination of hope, maybe. A generation endured the murders of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., and in Bobby they found a phoenix. Here was their last great hope out of the ashes of the '60s, and even that was taken away by mindless menace. The film despairs for us, yes, but it is ultimately an ode to our capacity for endurance.

What Estevez does isn't brain surgery. He uses RFK and the Ambassador Hotel as a spine, and wraps simple vignettes around it. But it's clear: Estevez himself had a definite vision, and Bobby is a perfect realization of it.

I've run out of words to convey the value of this movie. Bobby is an immersion and a reflection. It is a great experience. Most importantly, it makes us wonder how things would be different if RFK had been president instead of Nixon, and how we might work our way to that thwarted reality starting today. Better late than never.


Middento said...

Despite our recent disagreements on many movies, your review compels me to watch this -- surprising, given that up until this point it hasn't gottten very much good press.

Alanna said...

I just don't buy a Mighty Duck directing a masterpiece. I guess I'll have to see it to believe it.

J.J. said...

JMR: I've read none of the early reviews and I've heard no buzz, so this is a pristine, unaffected reaction from me -- which I think is the best kind of reaction. Maybe Bobby will be called maudlin and manipulative (I saw and loved Million Dollar Baby before the press spoiled it). Maybe I was so moved by it because it is perfectly timed. Think of it: an actual commentary on our current lives by a mainstream movie! That said, I can't wait to debate the naysayers once everyone starts seeing it.

Lani-poo: Don't knock Estevez. He may have been a Mighty Duck, but he was a damn good coach. And this man obviously *had* to tell this story. I respect that urgency.

Anonymous said...

I am so excited to see this review. I've had strangely high hopes for this flick since I first saw mention of it. And being a perversely devoted defender of Demi-- well.

Thanks for letting me not be too embarrassed about being soo excited to see this flick on Thanksgiving...

Jeanette said...

Excellent analysis. The only thing better than the film itself was seeing the masthead during the trailer listing every actor in thie movie.

J.J. said...

Jeanette -- you saw it? What are your thoughts?

[Aside: I'm worried about starting this drumbeat too early -- and thereby tainting everything -- but sometimes when you see a great movie, it's hard to keep it bottled up.]

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this, but I want to comment on other topics and figured if I wrote it here you'd see it:

#1: It would be nice to be listed again as a "People to See" now that I'm back

#2: Did I tell you I saw JUNEBUG recently?

#3: I just noticed your long sidebar info. This is quite the place to be on the web. I'm impressed.

Jeanette said...

I saw an extended trailer type thing, not the film itself, that the Wacky Weinsteins sent my boss' way, but not the film. I guess my language was deceiving...but it's on my list!

I also heard you didn't like For Your Consideration. Booo.

J.J. said...


#1: Done.
#2: I would like to hear your thoughts on Junebug, the best movie of 2005.
#3: Thank you.

Jeanette: I will blog about "FYC" shortly. It is a tremendous letdown.

Anonymous said...

#2: Junebug. I liked it.