Tribeca 2018: “Bobby Kennedy for President” Fuses The Classical and The Contemporary

Directed by: Dawn Porter
Executive Produced by: Laura Michalchyshyn, Dawn Porter, Dave Sirulnick, Justin Wilkes, Jon Kamen, Nestan Behrans, Gunnar Dedio, Ben Cotner, Adam Del Deo, Lisa Nishimura
Featuring: Rep. John Lewis, Dolores Huerta, D.A. Pennebaker, Harry Belafonte, William vanden Heuvel, Marian Wright Edelman, Peter Edelman, Paul Schrade
Music by: Paul Brill
Cinematography by: Bob Richman
Editing by: Joshua L. Pearson

Bobby Kennedy for President is produced by RadicalMedia, Trilogy Films, and LOOKSfilm for Netflix. A World Premiere of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, the docuseries launches globally Friday, April 27th.

“If he wins, they’re going to kill him.”

How did the women quoted by Dolores Huerta in Netflix’s Bobby Kennedy for President know this? I was not yet born at the time, but I think I’ve seen and read enough to know that at the time of his assassination, the air had become thick – a crackling energy, sparking the oxygen, was transmuting violence and ferocity and passion into the bloodstream of every American.

It must have seemed obvious to many of them that Robert Kennedy might be murdered if he gained enough power. Still, I wonder if those women found themselves shocked when it happened.

Across four episodes dedicated to RFK’s campaign for the presidency in 1968, director and executive producer Dawn Porter attempts to capture both the flavor and the intensity of that event by paying homage to Ken Burns. In fact, the entire project feels at first like a Burnsian pastiche, from its top-of-the-line opening credits graphics to its talking-head interviews to its archival recycling.

With the exception of its narrators (Burns uses one; Porter does not), Bobby Kennedy for President plays in part like a spin-off of The Vietnam War, right down to the recycled clip of LBJ deciding not to seek reelection.

At least, that is the case for the first three episodes.

The fourth, a masterclass in narrative left-turns, picks up after the Senator’s death in Los Angeles. Then, rather than spend the rest of the hour lingering on Kennedy’s impact in American sociopolitical history – a common and lazy end-strategy for much of the historical writing on this subject – Porter begins to look into the circumstances surrounding his death.

It’s an inspired decision. That a possible conspiracy was at play is obvious – this was the Kennedy family, after all – but Porter treats it as a genuine likelihood.

Much of the final hour is dedicated to the potential injustice served to Sirhan Sirhan, the man known for killing the candidate; and to Paul Schrade, who Sirhan shot, yet who continues to fight in his nineties to get Sirhan a fair trial.

Out of nowhere, this 4-hour docuseries becomes as engaged and enraged as an Oliver Stone drama in its final act. That leaves viewers with two distinct works: a standard, though unusually handsome, documentary about an over-studied bureaucrat; and a ferociously inquisitive, even provocative, true-crime saga.

The difference is, to put it mildly, jarring. In her previous films, Gideon’s Army and Trapped, Dawn Porter displayed a measure of narrative intellect that indeed resembled Burns’s, with a personal advocacy streak more akin to Barbara Kopple (Porter is a former lawyer.)

Here, her structural genius is compromised by an unavoidable redundancy: the narrative ground Porter walks in the first three episodes has been explored countless before, and there is nothing left to be learned by extending RFK’s campaign story across three hours.

Is it really necessary to say that Bob took the death of his brother badly? With “insights” like these, much of the early material feels more like a burden than an entertainment.

Only in Porter’s interviews with luminaries like Huerta, Harry Belafonte, and filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker do our eyes start to unglaze. At one particularly moving point, she brings together Schrade and Juan Romero, the busboy who cradled Kennedy as he died, for a reunion fifty years in the making. And when Representative John Lewis – a former Kennedy campaign aide – has a breakdown (has any sitting congressperson ever wept so unabashedly on camera?) we cry with him.

Paul Schrade (left) with Munir Sirhan, the brother of Sirhan Sirhan. Courtesy Netflix

In these moments, we are again reminded that Netflix is dealing with a filmmaker as adept at cinematic construction as with listening to her subjects. The reverse is also true: in Netflix, Porter has found a distributor that depends on its craftspeople to deliver a stream-worthy product.

Having worked for several television studios, I am aware that a series must often fit certain distributable standards of production before it reaches people’s screens. These are not always explicit rules, of course, but often they create a streamlined look among a network’s shows.

Those who work at Netflix (or watch a lot of its original documentaries) will undoubtedly recognize the company “aesthetic” at work in Bobby Kennedy.

Bob Richman’s cinematography (with additional work from 13th DP Hans Charles and Ugly Delicious’s Tom Curran, among others) is the clearest representation of this, I think. Plainspoken in its lighting, utilitarian in color, and perfectly geometric in its framing, the show is beautiful in the way an Apple store is beautiful.

The most idiosyncratic contribution to the film is that from composer Paul Brill, whose haunting score sounds like Debussy wrote it on a synthesizer. Brill’s sonatas are transcendently touching (Brill and sound editor Christopher Barnett essentially staple Joshua L. Pearson’s handy editing together), but avoid the usual trappings of overuse and cloying tenderness.

Instead, Brill’s writing for piano seems somehow iconic both of Robert Kennedy’s melancholy and his humor.

Courtesy Netflix

About that last word: as the early classicism of Episodes 1-3 fades into the series finale, Porter and Pearson increasingly allow a particular aspect of the late Senator to shine through which is often entirely absent from his story.

Many of the archival clips feature him cracking jokes, amusing his audiences with self-deprecation and humility. For simple contrast, the filmmakers use material of his competitors – Humphrey, McCarthy, Johnson, Nixon – none of whom seem like the type that might buy you a drink. Only Kennedy seems able to chuckle at himself one minute, and yell for farmworker justice the next, without coming off as a complete fraud.

Have those of us too young to remember his death ever seen him onscreen like this? We have spent so much time as a nation obsessing over the unending tragedy of the Kennedy family that we have neglected their ability to be intentionally funny, rather than grotesquely so, as in Grey Gardens.

Sure enough, the release “coincides” with the 50-year anniversary of RFK’s campaign and assassination. This is morbid (and, inappropriately, commercial) timing, if you ask me.

Yet Porter and Pearson capture Kennedy’s wry side so deftly that I would not be surprised if their next project together focused on a professional entertainer. Even Ethel Kennedy, the long-time philanthropist and Robert’s widow, gets a couple laughs. Who knew she had Rodney Dangerfield’s timing?

Editor’s Note: Journalism is hard and criticism often equally so, but we continue unabated our half-decade enterprise of highlighting undervocalized and underexposed voices in cinema, music, comedy, and culture. Spare a dime to help us continue our support for independent mediamakers by making a tax-deductible donation to CineMalin.

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