12/04/2006 07:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Bobby," A Moving Tribute to Robert F. Kennedy

This afternoon I saw "Bobby." I must admit that it is difficult for me to be critical of a Hollywood movie that takes such care in presenting any aspect of Robert Kennedy's life. Having just finished writing my second book on Robert Kennedy, I count myself among those who would honor Emilio Estevez simply for attempting to bring Kennedy into the popular culture for a generation of young people who might be unfamiliar with his life and legacy. The short biography of Kennedy that I just finished writing is aimed to those same young people, high school and college students, who have so much to learn from Kennedy, and hopefully will be inspired by his vision and by this film.

Estevez has created a fine work that I believe will stand scrutiny from historians of the period. Film critics might not be as charitable, but I believe "Bobby" is an extremely important movie. It is the only attempt from Hollywood to try to recreate the central place in our political life that Kennedy occupied in the late-1960s. At one point in the film, while multiple TV monitors blare the news about Kennedy's campaign, the young Ronald Reagan can be seen briefly, hinting to us what we will be left with after Kennedy's assassination later that night.

Estevez weaves Kennedy's final day at the Ambassador Hotel in and out of the lives of some interesting characters who are meant to be, like Kennedy, emblematic of the year 1968 in America. Kennedy's words and his actions, as well as his unique role in American society as a symbol of hope shines throughout this tribute. The film's superb soundtrack is stirring, and like the television images and speeches of RFK, provides a fitting backdrop for the various character-driven vignettes. Estevez's seamless interweaving of recreated shots with actual documentary footage from 1968 accurately captures the élan of the 1960s and Kennedy's place within it.

Estevez's choices of Kennedy's speeches are excellent and concise, and they are pivotal to the film's mission to expose young people to his thoughts and ideas. Kennedy had the ability to inspire and prod people to take action, and I believe this film does a fine job of representing both. After seeing this movie, people unfamiliar with Kennedy's legacy might be compelled to learn more about him. And today, with America waging yet another unjust and unpopular war abroad, while inequality and injustice continue to grow at home, Robert Kennedy more than any other figure in recent American history deserves to have his words widely distributed on celluloid.

I sense that the brief voiceover in the beginning of the film of Mario Savio's famous speech during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement was aimed to speak directly to the young people of today. An accurate recreation of the Ambassador Hotel's kitchen pantry is a powerful image for the generation old enough to remember. The interspersing of Kennedy's speeches and campaign appearances on multiple television screens throughout the movie captures something of the feeling I can recall in San Jose, California, even though I was only nine years old. (My family was thrilled that Kennedy paid a visit to our city, and my draft age uncles were Kennedy volunteers). And it is worth the price of admission just to see Robert Kennedy speaking to a group of elementary school children about protecting the environment. Estevez shows us just how ahead of his time Kennedy was in 1968.

Estevez also captures a sense of the raised consciousness of the period among African Americans and Latinos. The voiceover of Kennedy's speech he gave in Cleveland on the subject of violence on the day following the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. is terribly moving as the drama of the shooting in the Ambassador Hotel unfolds before our eyes. It is a fitting peroration for the film, but also for the 1960s. When Kennedy died, the spirit of hope and idealism of the period seemed to have died with him. Estevez powerfully drives home this point. Near the end, the scribbling on the tile wall of the pantry by the Fishbourne character, "The Once and Future King," is spattered with blood, visible only for an instant, but its subliminal message is clear: Robert Kennedy was the right leader at the right time, and his potential will remain forever unrealized.

Hundreds of times I have seen the footage of Kennedy stepping from the podium at the Ambassador Hotel (I show it to my students), and every time I see it I want to jump into the frame, grab him by the hand, and lead him away from the impending abyss. But history doesn't work that way; it cannot be changed. The film makes clear that Robert Kennedy was an extraordinary human being, and his words can still resonate with those who were not even born until after he was gone. Emilio Estevez deserves high praise for making it part of his life's work to share Kennedy's legacy with future generations. And in these difficult times, Kennedy's message needs to be heard now more than ever. Packaging his legacy as "entertainment" is fine with me, we all know that young people don't read books as they used to, but they still go to the movies.