Fitting an entire life into four hours is a tall task for any documentary filmmaker. Doing so for a member of the Kennedy family is even more impossible. Focusing on Robert F. Kennedy, middle brother, reluctant politician, and eventual national candidate meant that director Dawn Porter had a very specific guiding idea for the new Netflix documentary series “Bobby Kennedy for President.”
Using a wealth of archival footage showing Kennedy’s public and private life, Porter wanted to keep a consistent force that bound all of these selected stories from a life that simply had too many to include all of them.
“We very quickly realized there’s so much there that you can’t tell everything. There’s just thousands of Bobby Kennedy stories,” Porter told IndieWire. “So the motivating question I wanted to explore was, ‘How does this show us how Bobby Kennedy evolved? What does this particular story tell us about his priorities, what he was passionate about? And then how does it show growth and change?’ Each story had to serve the purpose of explaining Bobby Kennedy’s growth and evolution as a person and a politician.”
Along with the bevy of stories about the politician came a wide variety of opinions. In Porter’s eyes (and in the eyes of the series itself), the idea that Kennedy changed so much over the course of his political and public life meant that no one person had the perfect idea of who he was.
“The people who describe him as a bare-knuckled, aggressive power seeker, I think they’re wrong. I think that he was aggressive, he was smart, he was confident. He was going to do what needed to be done. And people who see him as saintly figure, they’re also wrong. But I do think he’s certainly more saint than sinner,” Porter said. “What you see, particularly at the end of his all-too-short life, was a person who was very comfortable in his moral convictions and was determined to, as much as possible, have the policies to support and reflect those priorities. I think that’s important. He doggedly worked to bring others around to understand where his opinions came from.”
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Kennedy without discussing the family that fostered and helped sustain his political career, just as he had done for his brother during the 1960 presidential campaign. Robert Kennedy himself had a large household of his own, to say nothing of the extended Hyannis Port family that features prominently in a few of the home videos on display in “Bobby Kennedy for President.” By design, Porter didn’t interview any of the members of the Kennedy family for her film, but for her that helped her figure out what she wanted “Bobby Kennedy for President” to be.
“While he is a public figure to us, he is a father and husband to them. Rory Kennedy made the beautiful film ‘Ethel’ and that was more of the family. It’s a large family, a diverse family. They all have different opinions. Maybe this isn’t something that we needed them for, for better or worse,” Porter said. “Certainly I would have loved to speak to particularly some of the older children and to Ethel Kennedy just about, you know, the history and her experiences. So I leave that to someone else. I think that it’s a rich story that will continue and there’s many possibilities for expanding it. And I hope this whets people’s appetites for more understanding of that era and that time.”
“Bobby Kennedy for President” features few historians in the traditional sense. When assembling the tight group of Kennedy colleagues and confidants to help illuminate the private life behind his public actions, Porter wanted to interview people who could offer direct, unmediated glimpses into their personal relationships with Kennedy. With a figure about whom so many facts are already part of an established record, Porter wanted to find the emotional anchors like Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Neil Gallagher, and former ambassador William vanden Heuvel who could speak to the range of ideals and criticisms that Kennedy inspired in those he met.
“This was a person to them. He wasn’t a statue. He wasn’t a person you read about in a book. I think that it gave a layer to the interviews that I was looking for,” Porter said. “I wanted it to be a smaller group. When you know somebody’s relationship with the main subject, you can understand whatever biases they have. You give the audience a little bit more power to understand that this is where these people are coming from.”
When asked whether Robert Kennedy had any modern analogues, Porter cited some of the spirit that guided President Obama’s second term, particularly the decisions to commute and pardon long-overdue sentences and advances in voter rights. But part of the allure of making this series for Porter was to spend time profiling a figure who to her exemplified a commitment to service that’s largely gone.
“I think it’s been a lot time since we’ve had a politician like Bobby Kennedy who you really unequivocally knew what he stood for. He had a particular position and power and I think he used it wisely,” Porter said. “One of my favorite pieces is when is the students are grilling him about, ‘Why do you want to be a senator?’ And he says, ‘I’d like to serve.’ That was important to his family and that’s how he grew up raising his children. I think that’s admirable.”