By William Wolf


Assassinations, realistically past and fictionally future, were at the center of two important films that drew attention at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. The more interesting and better of the two is “Bobby,” a story built around the killing of Robert Kennedy. More sensational, but of less value is “Death of a President,” in which Gabriel Range, a Brit, speculates in documentary-style on what would happen if George W. Bush were assassinated. (Each film will be reviewed fully when commercially released.)

“Bobby,” written and directed by Emilio Estevez, has a kind of “Grand Hotel” story that unfolds on the day of Kennedy’s murder. It examines the status and trajectory of various lives built around the event and how the characters will be affected. A powerful cast highlighted by some strong, fascinating performances includes William H. Macy, Sharon Stone, Helen Hunt, Demi Moore, Laurence Fishburne, Heather Graham, Anthony Hopkins, Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood. Sharon Stone particularly distinguishes herself in this one.

Apart from recalling the tragedy, “Bobby” has importance as a reminder of how different America and the world might have been had Kennedy lived to become president. He was on a roll in the wake of Lyndon Johnson having stepped aside as a result of the misbegotten Vietnam War. He had just won the California Democratic primary and was due at the Ambassador Hotel, scene of the drama, to celebrate victory.

The film sadly reminds us of the promise that existed and the youthful enthusiasm and hope engendered by Kennedy’s campaign. One views the film aware of the absence of such enthusiasm and optimism now, and in that sense, “Bobby” is making a strong statement that surmounts the drama built around the character assortment even though the drama is striking on its own terms. The film is extremely well made, with the weaving of fiction and fact into a dynamic, suspenseful tour de force.

“Death of a President” is also slickly put together, with a blend of real clips and digital trickery to weave a chilling portrait of what could happen to Bush during a trip to Chicago in 2007. But such a conjecture involving a sitting president is ghoulish and even angry opponents of Bush would not see a presidential assassination as something to rationally desire.

However, the film is not projecting that as wish fulfillment. It is examining what happens in the aftermath as a wrong person is accused and trapped in the hysteria of the times against an unpopular minority. It is a film that examines how off the deep end America is and that it could get worse. In that sense, the film has something to say. But it is not deep enough to offset the nastiness of the premise that some might consider irresponsible.

Censoring it would be wrong, but it is not surprising that there are theaters that would not want to book the film. Plaudits to the Toronto International Film Festival for having the courage to include it.

(More to come)


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