THE ‘BOBBY’ EFFECT

It gives one pause to read that the very same critics who are heaping endless praise all over “Babel” are finding fault with writer-director Emilio Estevez for being overly “ambitious” with “Bobby,” the new film about the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. It’s amazing, because while everyone marveled at the glorious filmmaking, I haven’t seen one person emerge crying from “Babel.” But tears abounded after a Cinema Society preview screening of “Bobby,” which opens in town on Thanksgiving Day.

No wonder the average movie fan thinks critics are irrelevant.

Perhaps “Bobby” does overreach in its attempt to incorporate a “morality play,” as he put it, touching on nearly every facet of ‘60s culture and politics in fast-paced two hours that cover just a single day 38 years ago. Estevez, who spent nearly seven years writing the script and getting the film made, weaves several stories into the fabric of the day, including young volunteers who skip the get-out-the-vote drive for their first LSD trip; a racist restaurant manager fired for his prejudices; a Mexican busboy forced to forego witnessing Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale’s attempt at a record seventh consecutive shut out to work a double-shift; and a new high school graduate who marries a friend to keep him from going to Viet Nam. All the action takes place within the confines of the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was shot.

Perhaps Estevez doesn’t quite tie the stories directly to Kennedy’s assassination. But they serve as microcosms for the people who were actually there and those around the country who were galvanized by the campaign and devastated by Kennedy’s death. The huge cast of A-list actors and his young stars – Anthony Hopkins, William H. Macy, Helen Hunt, Ashton Kutcher, Lindsay Lohan and Freddy Rodriguez – turn in an ensemble performance that combined with the subject matter make “Bobby” about as close as possible to a one-day version of “Nashville” – Robert Altman’s fictional classic and one of the 10 greatest films in history. In fact, three people came up to Estevez afterwards and told him they were there the day it happened, and that this was the story of their lives.

“[Robert] Kennedy’s (death) was a defining moment in American history,” Estevez said after the Cinema Society preview. “Now I believe there’s an absence of leadership in this country. We have stopped asking our leaders to speak openly and honestly from the heart.

“(I hope) this movie serves as a call to action for young people to ask questions, and re-engage in the debate,” Estevez continued. “I’m unbelievably and unapologetically optimistic and idealistic.”

After experiencing writer’s block, Estevez found a catalyst for continuing at a ramshackle motel two summers ago in Pismo Beach. “The woman at the reservation desk recognized me and asked what I was doing there,” Estevez says. “(When) I told her, she lost her breath and said, ‘I was there that night.’ She was a Youth for Kennedy volunteer, had come back to the ballroom and heard the shots. She described it perfectly: ‘It was as if the rug was pulled out from under our generation and we were in free fall.’ The writer’s block was over.”