“If Lincoln didn’t get us there, if Dr. King didn’t get us there, if Bobby didn’t get us there, what the hell is left to say?” That’s the question you may be left with by the end of Bobby Kennedy for President – and it’s testament to just how current Netflix’s documentary series feels.
Directed by Dawn Porter, the four-part series charts Kennedy’s historic 83-day Presidential run, but the title is deceptive: this is a series that thinks much bigger than his ill-fated journey towards the White House, and looks far wider than its four-hour runtime would suggest. The documentary is something of an epic, charting most of Bobby’s life, taking its time to savour the events that informed his political views, as well as the details that influenced his near-Presidential ambition.
We begin with older brother JFK, as the series highlights just how big a role Robert played in the other Kennedy’s campaign. Managing the political machine and learning how to compromise and communicate, he was a beating heart of change and momentum. Episode 2, meanwhile, sees him dealing with the tragedy of his brother’s death, as he fights both to keep his brother’s policies intact and to overcome his grief. It’s in this period that we see him engage more and more with civil rights, positioning him for his own historic run for Commander-in-Chief.
But this is no hagiography, and Porter’s careful pacing ensures that we don’t dodge the less savoury aspects of the Kennedy story: as US Attorney General, he was far from perfect, not only associating with Joseph McCarthy and his Communist witch hunt, but also authorising the FBI’s wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr.. If that were to happen today, Kennedy would be blacklisted forever by the media, but the show’s strength lies in the way it allows Bobby to be more three-dimensional than that – he’s not just a figure to be posthumously lauded, but a human capable of changing his mind, as he was exposed to, and spoke to, different people with their own problems and situations. It’s easy to lose count of the number of times we hear members of the public, from all walks of life, praise him for simply listening to them – a quality that saw him rise from AG to Senator to Presidential candidate while winning and retaining support from Martin Luther King Jr.’s followers.
You might normally talk about Dr. King and the Kennedys in the same sentence, or even consider his connection to Vietnam (which he was in favour of) or Watergate, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. But that’s what makes Bobby Kennedy for President such a remarkable piece of filmmaking: it puts the man in historical context. Like OJ: Made in America, it’s an astonishing feat of production, scouring through hundreds of hours of footage to seamlessly slot them together, jumping from news clips of rallies to home videos of dogs to heartfelt talking heads, half of it never seen before and the other half feeling brand spanking new.
What remains amazing is the way that Kennedy responds to each situation, rarely with a scripted speech and always with a sincere, off-the-cuff reaction – a rally where he has to stop everything and inform a crowd that Dr. King has been killed is hugely moving, as he keeps a piece of paper scrunched up, unread, in his hand. His knack for honesty makes him a impressive figure, particularly in 2018. Indeed, the documentary’s context extends after Bobby as well as before: following his tragic shooting, which unfolds suddenly and is edited for maximum urgency and shock, Episode 4 moves on to look at the trial of Sirhan Sirhan. With a thoroughness befitting the podcast Serial, Porter’s team even investigate and question the evidence that secured the accused shooter a life sentence behind bars (his next parole hearing is in 2021).
That final hour turns the show from an interesting history lesson, albeit one with stylish opening credits to rival True Detective, to something pertinent and powerfully resonant. Our focus shifts from just Bobby the man to Bobby the legacy, and all that contemporary backdrop begins to feel all too familiar, as Bobby’s life is surrounded by gun violence, social inequality, racial prejudice and an apparent lack of trustworthy politicians. The result is a tribute to decency and idealism, qualities so glaringly absent in the current political climate, and a reminder of the sacrifice that leaders in America’s past have made to be something better than themselves.
If Lincoln, Dr. King and Bobby failed to solve the same issue that still face the US today, what’s left to say? “We’ve got to keep trying,” says one. “That’s what Bobby was really about: he was trying to find a solution.” It’s a lesson that, even 50 years on, has lost none of its importance. This is informative, in-depth, inspiring filmmaking.
Bobby Kennedy for President is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.