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Netflix’s four-hour documentary series Bobby Kennedy for President is a complicated and frequently insightful look at a man who could have been president and whose assassination was one of the last nails in the coffin of ’60s idealism.
The series, from director Dawn Porter (Gideon’s Army), also isn’t exactly what the title and its Friday premiere timing, part of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s presidential run, are selling it as.
AIR DATE Apr 27, 2018
Bobby Kennedy’s run for the presidency, a quest that ended outside the Ambassador Hotel ballroom in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, undoubtedly could have been fodder for a full documentary, perhaps a multipart documentary series. That whole Democratic race for the presidency that year — with Lyndon Johnson’s recusal, its eclectic assortment of candidates and the eventual chaos in Chicago — definitely could have been a series.
The literal campaign that gives the series its title is just a small piece of Bobby Kennedy for President. The 83-day presidential trek is tucked entirely into the third of the four hours, and that hour includes both the assassination, featured with shocking and graphic detail, and its immediate aftermath. If anything, in fact, it’s the most anemic part of the series. Much more depth could have been dedicated to the impression that Kennedy was drafting off of Eugene McCarthy’s courage in opposing a sitting president, the stunning loss in Oregon and other specific moments from the trail. That’s just not, despite the title, what Bobby Kennedy for President is about.
Porter’s overall series architecture is probably more about what was called the “Bobby Phenomenon” and the development and evolution of one of the 20th century’s more interesting and brief political legacies. The first hour is mostly about Kennedy’s brother John and how his own cult of personality gave Bobby the chance to progress from a figure first introduced to the country as a pugnacious young attorney working under Joseph McCarthy and as a tireless campaign manager who didn’t care whom he hurt with his swinging sharp elbows. In this episode and into the second, we see the growth of RFK’s interest in civil rights and crusade on poverty. In order to understand why and how this son of a wealthy political dynasty became such a champion for the persecuted and voiceless, it’s also crucial to see why so many on the left were initially distrustful.
Porter’s great success here is honoring the martyred and deified version of Kennedy without buying into the narrative that his ascension was easy and magically preordained. Bobby the Orator is well-known and always impressive. My favorite clips were when Kennedy was being funny and self-deprecating and even when he was stumbling and misspeaking, as happened often in his 1964 race for Senate. It may not be warts-and-all, because Porter is completely uninterested in anything salacious or gossipy, but it’s surely rough-edges-and-all.
For much of its duration, Bobby Kennedy for President feels like an impersonal and journalistic story, expertly combining a wealth of archival and home movie footage of the well-documented figure from a family prone to spending its special and tragic times in a recorded spotlight. I think that feeling stems from comparing Bobby Kennedy for President with Rory Kennedy’s very fine film Ethel. For the most obvious of reasons, Rory Kennedy was able to feature many Kennedy family members and those nearest and dearest to Bobby and Ethel. That’s a daughter making a movie about her mom and dad and siblings, and whether that project compelled exclusivity from the Kennedy clan or Porter simply recognized that she couldn’t compete, the decision not to compete was probably a good one. Porter gets a few big names including Rep. John Lewis, Harry Belafonte and Dolores Huerta (subject of her own recent documentary that’s worth checking out) and a number of Kennedy’s advisers and aides, topped by Paul Schrade, who also was wounded in the Ambassador shooting. It’s a good, small crew of talking heads that never makes you say, “Man, I can’t believe they got everybody.”
What’s impressive then is how Bobby Kennedy for President takes on new shadings in the episode that takes place after Kennedy’s death. With Schrade as the unlikely hero, that episode is all over the map, from RFK assassination conspiracy theories to his long-term legacies, and it’s suddenly a much more personal set of stories. There’s a new conversation with Schrade and another key figure from the RFK narrative that’s so emotional it feels like a payoff for every familiar detail and oft-shown speech from the earlier episodes.
It’s critical to again underline how Bobby Kennedy for President isn’t the show its title and trailer and logline suggest. If you think that’s what the series thinks it is, then the first two episodes are needly exposition and the last episode is an extended epilogue. Instead, it’s all part of getting why so much hope was put behind this man who had served four years as attorney general and four years as a senator. It’s about the idea of Bobby Kennedy and the idea of what a Bobby Kennedy presidency might have been and never was. That, however, would be a really long, confusing name for a TV show.
Director: Dawn Porter
Executive Producers: Laura Michalchyshyn and Dawn Porter, Dave Sirulnick, Justin Wilkes and Jon Kamen, Nestan Behrans and Gunnar Deddio and Ben Cotner, Adam Del Deo and Lisa Nishimura
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)
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