Nikki Finke‘s story about Matt Damon being attached to a Robert F. Kennedy biopic (based on a 2002 Evan Thomas biography) is a bit of a “meh.” I’d expect Damon to match Steven Culp‘s performance in Roger Donaldson‘s Thirteen Days, at least. But I’m not sure what this would come to.
Steven Knight’s script and Gary Ross does a first-rate job of directing and so on, what can this film be at the end of the day? That sounds cynical, of course. Defeatist. But consider this famous 1968 speech that RFK jgave just after hearing of Martin Luther King‘s murder. It gets me every time (especially the cries in the audience after Kennedy breaks the news). How could Damon/Ross/Knight pic avoid including it in their film? But no matter how well Damon delivers it, it’ll still be a “cover” version that’ll never match the real thing.
And in this era of easy file-sharing and YouTube access to everything, I’m wondering if an historical biopic has the potential to jolt the way it did even ten years ago. I suppose I’m reacting also to the thud effect of Emilio Estevez‘s Bobby, which put me off wanting to see another Hollywood processing of RFK’s life and times ever again.
The only chance for an RFK biopic do really work dramatically would be to focus on the bad Bobby/good Bobby dichotomy. It would have to have to effectively sell the idea that he was far from a saint, and may even have been a bit of a dick. And that he was a guy who worked for Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the ’50s and saw life in black-and-white terms (his father once said of him, “The kid hates like I do”), and yet gradually grow into a much more compassionate and caring person as he got older — not an easy task.
And it would have to somehow dramatize this passage from the Thomas book, to wit:
“[RFK] was brave because he was afraid. His monsters were too large and close at hand to simply flee. He had to turn and fight them…. He became a one-man underground, honeycombed with hidden passages, speaking in code, trusting no one completely, ready to face the firing squad — but also knowing when to slip away to fight again another day. Although he affected simplicity and directness, he became an extraordinarily complicated and subtle man. His shaking hands and reedy voice, his groping for words as well as meaning, his occasional resort to subterfuge, do not diminish his daring. Precisely because he was fearful and self-doubting, his story is an epic of courage.”
Which of course is too complex and layered an observation to be incorporated into a dramatic through-line in a film. So the film, if it gets made, will once again hone and compress and reduce in the usual unsatisfying way.
You know what I’d love to see? A two-part RFK movie that focuses on two significant chapters in the same vein as Steven Soderbergh‘s Che — a portion focusing on Kennedy’s life in the mid ’50s (McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Jimmy Hoffa) when he was seen as tough and combative and conservative-minded , and then a chapter about the messianic finale during the last three or four months of his life — entering the Presidential primaries on 3.16.68 to his murder in Los Angeles on 6.5.68.
No RFK childhood, no Teddy, no Ethel, no Brumus…none of that. Nothing about managing JFK’s campaign or RFK’s time as Attorney General, no touch-footballing-in-Hyannisport, no depression after his brother’s murder, no Marilyn Monroe…none of that. A longish RFK Che movie would be bold, fascinating, different. That I would pay to see.