By the fourth and final episode of “Bobby Kennedy for President,” the subjects pulled from ’60s archival footage are starting to sound a little too familiar. Responding to a series of high-profile assassinations — first Martin Luther King Jr., then Robert F. Kennedy — their chosen language and instinctual anger could very well be pulled from protests depicted on last night’s news.
- “I wish we could wake up from this nightmare.”
- “I can’t believe what’s happening in this country.”
- “… you might as well barricade yourself [for safety]…”
- “I think everything is all messed up — don’t you?”
Everything is indeed messed up, and whether your recurring nightmare is a lack of respectable political leaders or the seemingly unending scourge of gun violence (or both), “Bobby Kennedy for President” offers compelling parallels for each. Dawn Porter’s four-hour documentary is first and foremost an intimate examination of the complicated title figure, but it consciously evokes topical points bound to be on the minds of modern viewers. Though the sheer bulk of it all can make digging through individual episodes a bit dense, the structure is clear enough to keep drawing you in, especially when it hurts.
Each hourlong insallment is framed around a specific portion of RFK’s history. Part 1 establishes Kennedy as a strong campaign manager, describing him as “a cop at heart” who wasn’t afraid to go after people. That included some morally sketchy associations with Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Communist witch hunt, as well as other public figures Kennedy enjoyed taking down on the big stage.
When John F. Kennedy wins the election and Robert is appointed as U.S. Attorney General, Porter utilizes an impressive amount of archival footage to show the young A.G. negotiating, holding meetings in the White House, and living his life outside of work. The first hour ends with JFK’s assassination and Part 2 examines Bobby’s changing perspective and position. Never a supporter of Lyndon Johnson, he has to fight through a “terrible cloud of depression” to help keep his brother’s policies alive.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the first half is how Porter’s framing doesn’t idolize Kennedy. It’s not all sunshine and roses, as they say, and his McCarthyism ties and insistent support of the Vietnam War aren’t ignored. In fact, they’re used to highlight a key difference between Kennedy and other ’60s era politicians. Where today’s D.C. leaders are called flip-floppers if they dare change their opinion, Kennedy was respected for (eventually) reversing his views on the war. It wasn’t used as a slight against his eventual presidential campaign, like so much ancient history is dug up to discredit candidates now.
In the second half, the conversation shifts to Kennedy’s own campaign and his tragic assassination. There’s a powerful moment shown in full when the presidential candidate has to inform a crowd of supporters that Martin Luther King has been killed. Conscious of the moment and his responsibility to it, Kennedy even has the foresight and humanity to tell onlookers to put their signs down — this is no longer about him, and his off-the-cuff speech is a poignant mix of pure reaction and thoughtful response.
We know it was an improvised speech instead of a written one because of Porter’s excellent incorporation of experts. John Lewis, who was an aide to Kennedy before he became a U.S. Representative, tells us about RFK’s speech, and later he’s moved to tears remembering his death. There are a number of senators and advisors, as well as lesser-known figures who were close with Kennedy. In the final hour, Porter examines the trial of Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, who was convicted of killing the candidate even though the documentary focuses on how questionable that ruling has become. Footage of Sirhan’s appeals process is a jarring connection between past and present after seeing so many of his interviews during the trial.
The documentary doesn’t exactly end on a call to action, but it does roll out a montage of people who were inspired by Kennedy’s life and made the most of their own in order to “pick up the slack.” Fitting with the filmmaker’s objective approach to her subject, “Bobby Kennedy for President” isn’t meant to chastise anyone who dropped the ball so much as it illustrates how the following generations of Americans could develop into the citizens we are today.
Porter’s film highlights the importance of idealism, especially for leaders who are tasked with grand, big picture challenges. It shows what was lost along with Kennedy while reminding us that gun violence has been a national problem for far longer than young viewers might realize.
“Bobby Kennedy for President” premiered on Wednesday, April 25 at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is now streaming on Netflix.