by Roderick Conway Morris

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Estevez's 'Bobby' and Cuaron's 'Children of Men'

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 12 September 2006


Emilio Estevez's 'Bobby' manages to be suspenseful, even though the final outcome is never in doubt. He follows the lives of a score of individuals at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles - from kitchen porters and switchboard girls to Democratic Party activists and wealthy guests - during the hours preceding the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968.

Paradoxically, this film, shown in competition at the Venice film festival, is to some extent an exercise in nostalgia. Martin Luther King had been murdered only two months before, race riots had torn America's cities apart, the Vietnam War was raging - but there was hope for the future.

Whether this idealism and optimism would have borne fruit had Bobby Kennedy lived and been elected president, we shall never know. But the world today in many ways looks a more randomly dangerous place than it did in the late 1960s.

Some of the scenes were shot at the actual Ambassador Hotel, in considerable haste before it was demolished.

Rather than base characters on real people, Estevez has for the most part invented them. One exception is the girl about to marry a high school classmate to save him from being sent to Vietnam: Estevez met such a woman who was at the hotel that night. One of the actors, Harry Belafonte, knew Bobby Kennedy well.

Estevez is the son of the actor Martin Sheen. Both father and son have parts in this ensemble-style venture, which also features Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Laurence Fishburne, Demi Moore and Elijah Wood. Sharon Stone completely transforms herself to play the hotel beautician Miriam, whose husband Paul (William H. Macy) is having an affair with the switchboard operator Angela (Heather Graham).

There are moments of sentimentality, but otherwise Estevez's own script is nicely done. He makes good use of period footage and of Kennedy's broadcast statements and speeches. The superior level of political speechwriting of those times will also evoke a certain wistfulness, even among those who might not find themselves in tune with this essentially hagiographic portrait of JFK's heir apparent.

Alfonso Cuarón directed 'Y Tu Mamá También' and 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,' and his latest film is a powerfully dark, unsettling drama. 'The Children of Men,' also in competition, is based on the P.D. James novel, in which the Englishcrime writer took time out of her more familiar territory.

This dystopic scenario opens on the day in 2027 that the death is announced of the world's youngest person, a teenager. Inexplicably, a plague of infertility has swept the globe, and no new babies have been born for nearly 20 years. As despair has set in, civil conflicts and wars are tearing the world apart. One of the few places of comparative order is Britain, but it has become a police state. Terrorist groups opposed to government policy are waging an armed struggle against the authorities and killing and maiming civilians in IRA-style explosions.

The film has its share of stars, including Julianne Moore as a terrorist on the run and Michael Caine as an aging hippie. But these are cameo parts compared with that of Clive Owen in a compelling performance as Theo, a cynical antihero who is blackmailed into taking care of a young illegal immigrant, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). The duo improvises desperately to escape the clutches of the trigger-happy police and a murderous terrorist group.

Although a thriller, this gripping film is not without contemporary relevance. The bleak scenes of urban decay, self-righteous terrorist killers, and brutal and brutalized 'security' forces are not entirely divorced from reality, and this apocalyptic vision of the future is a little too close for comfort.

Marco Müller, the Venice festival's director, has delivered a strong and varied line-up of films at this year's event, which will come as a relief here, after extensive Italian media coverage of the real or imagined threat posed by the new Rome film festival to be inaugurated next month.

Francesco Rutelli, the culture minister and former mayor of Rome, is inevitably seen as a partisan of his home city. But he and the Italian government seem to be aware that to undermine Venice could be counterproductive. In an unexpected gesture, Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Rutelli paid a visit to the Lido midfestival to give assurances that the state would match funds raised locally to build the badly needed new festival complex here.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024