THE DOCUMENTARY "Bobby Kennedy for President"
WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT This four-hour film by Dawn Porter (“Gideon's Army”) tracks Robert F. Kennedy's career as U.S. attorney general through to his run for president, which began March 16, 1968, and ended nearly three months later, when he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan. Along with the footage — some never seen before — this includes interviews with a handful of key RFK allies, including William vanden Heuvel, Rep. John Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman, Peter Edelman and Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association. Sirhan's younger brother, Munir, is also interviewed.
MY SAY Porter and executive producer Laura Michalchyshyn have clearly collected a mountain of archival footage, much of which has been pared down to a hill. Cameras tended to follow the Kennedys everywhere, so mountains may not have been necessarily hard to come by. The real trick is that hill and "Bobby Kennedy for President" appears to have its scale just about right.
Those 83 days in 1968 were tumultuous, as well as the years leading up to them, so the visual effect of “Bobby Kennedy for President” is one of near ceaseless action, culminating in the third hour where chaos takes over. Always in the tumult, or beyond it, there's a glimpse of Bobby's shoulders, his hair, those eyes — “the saddest face I'd ever seen in my life,” recalled William Arnone, a campaign aide.
As the years go by, the jostling picture slowly morphs from black-and-white to color, but Kennedy remains the focus. There's an aloneness to this figure in the surging crowd, and only one moment where he seems genuinely happy, when meeting up with brother Teddy, on a street in Washington. They both laugh, sharing a bond only these two brothers could possibly have. His smile is dazzling in this instance. Usually it's just a rictus.
“Bobby Kennedy for President” aims for immersion and, for the most part, the aim is true. But something is still missing, and ultimately someone, too: To an extent, that would be Kennedy himself. All the pictures in the world can't glimpse into his heart, nor all the admirers — and a small crowd of them are relied upon here. That aloneness still remains after all these years.
For some reason, Porter declined to interview family members, which feels like an intentional oversight, but a regrettable one from a viewer standpoint. Kennedy was a devoted father and husband, by most accounts, including those here. In 2012, daughter Rory Kennedy produced an excellent film for HBO on her mother, Ethel, who had plenty to say about these years – all of it informative. There are merely glimpses of Ethel in “President,” but nothing remotely substantive.
RFK largely disappears by the fourth hour, which is consumed with longtime aide and friend Paul Schrade's attempt to find out exactly what happened on that tragic June night so long ago. Schrade, now 91, stops short of using the word "conspiracy," but it's clear he believes there was a cover-up of some sort. He seems to find peace, however, when Juan Romero turns up at his door. Now an old man himself, Romero was the busboy who cradled the dying senator at the Ambassador just after midnight on June 6, 1968. His voice hoarse, his eyes tearing, he says, “Bobby gave me hope.” It's the single best tribute of the program.
BOTTOM LINE Exhaustive, admiring, comprehensive and richly documented, “Bobby Kennedy for President” nevertheless doesn't feel especially revelatory.