Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Review: Bobby Kennedy for President

Bobby Kennedy for President **** / *****
Directed by: Dawn Porter.
You can certainly make the case that if there is one family in American history that doesn’t need any more coverage, it would be the Kennedys. This is the most famous and talked about political dynasties in American history, and there has never been a shortage of films, documentaries, books, etc. about the family. And yet, in recent months we have been treated to not just one, but two very good projects about the Kennedys – first there was Chappaquiddick, with Jason Clarke as Teddy Kennedy, exploring what happened on that bridge that ended with a young woman dead, and his Presidential aspirations dead as well. And now comes Bobby Kennedy for President – a Netflix, four part, four hour documentary on Bobby Kennedy. The second most famous Kennedy brother has not lacked for coverage himself over the years – but a lot of it has focused on his relationship with his older brother, or his assassination. Bobby Kennedy for President, for the first three hours at least, puts Bobby and his career front and center.
Directed by Dawn Porter, Bobby Kennedy for President is typical documentary visually – bringing together a lot of archive footage of Kennedy, and modern day interviews with some of the people who were there (none of the Kennedys, but many others). Although the title of the documentary is Bobby Kennedy for President, it’s really only the third hour that focuses on his Presidential bid in 1968 (after all, it only lasted a few months). The first hour is basically about his role working for his brother – not necessarily their relationship together, but mainly what Bobby did – how he ran those campaigns, and how ruthless he could be. The first hour is also the most critical of Kennedy as the documentary is going to get – pointing out his relationship with Joseph McCarthy, how he didn’t want his brother to get involved with Civil Rights, because it would hurt him in the South, or his authorization of the wiretapping of Martin Luther King (and others) while he was Attorney General. Even according to his brother, Bobby was a “cop at heart” – and would do anything to get his man. The second hour is about that period between when his brother was killed, and when he ran for office himself, first as a Senator, and then finally, for President. The movie doesn’t shy away from home controversial Kennedy himself could be – how the people of New York weren’t all thrilled that this guy from Massachusetts decided to come to their state to run for Senate (Teddy already being a Senator from Massachusetts) – and again how ruthless he was.
But the documentary is at its best during this part of the story – as Kennedy starts to take the type of tours many politicians do in order to have photo-ops with the people. But the abject poverty that Kennedy witnesses really did have an effect on him – he grew close to people like Cesar Chavez, and worked for the poor. When there were riots, even though he was a “cop at heart” he didn’t just condemn the violence – but wanted to address the issues that caused the violence in the first place. The third hour really is the culmination of this way of thinking, which is why he jumped into the race for President in the first place. The movie shows the campaign he ran, and how close he was to winning. Had he not been assassinated, would he have become President? And how different would America look with Bobby Kennedy in charge at that time rather than Richard Nixon? The fourth hour is both fascinating and scattershot – having been shot at the end of the third hour, the fourth hour is all about the aftermath of his death, and concentrates quite a bit of time on his killer Sirhan Sirhan – and the possibility that he did not act alone. This isn’t Oliver Stone conspiracy stuff, but slightly more grounded, with the basic conclusion being we’ll never really know.
Bobby Kennedy for President is a fascinating look at the other Kennedy brother, told through all that archival footage, which reminds you both just how young he looked, and yet how much weighed on him. It’s a film that has contemporary resonance precisely because it doesn’t really push to try and have it – it underlines the difference between today’s politicians (and current resident of the White House) and Kennedy, without really explicitly mentioning them. Its purpose may well be to bring hope to a hopeless time – and to perhaps to remind people that American has been bitterly divided for a long time. Only occasionally, can some people bring them together.

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