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january/february 2007

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Mixing Up June 4, 1968, Fact And Fiction In Emilio Estevez’s Bobby
By Marc Leepson

The nation’s film critics generally were not kind to Bobby, the actor/writer/director Emilio Estevez’s requiem for the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, which opened in theaters around Thanksgiving. The kinder critics compared the film, unfavorably, to Robert Altman’s great movies—Nashville and Short Cuts, for example. The crankier critics compared it, unfavorably, to kitchy, low-rent disaster films such as Airport. A few compared Bobby, sort of favorably, to well-regarded flicks, namely Grand Hotel and From Here to Eternity.

Altman did come to mind as your arts editor sat through Bobby. That’s because Estevez, perhaps best known for his starring role in The Mighty Ducks, ambitiously created 22 characters for Bobby, and he tossed them into at least a dozen often overlapping subplots. That’s a good thing. What doesn’t work as well is the fact that several of the stories are all but pointless, some of the dialogue is tortuously trite, and that, unlike Altman’s films, there is precious little humor amid the drama and melodrama.

On the positive side, several actors in this film are among Hollywood’s finest, and they perform up to their usual high standards. The A List: Laurence Fishburne, who plays a dignified sous chef; Anthony Hopkins, a conflicted retired doorman; William H. Macy, a self-important hotel management type; Sharon Stone, a hotel hairdresser and Macy’s put-upon wife; and Helen Hunt, a rich man’s vacuous wife. The other name actors in the cast: Martin Sheen (Estevez’s real-life father), Estevez himself, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher (Mr. Demi Moore in real life), Christian Slater, Harry Belafonte, Freddy Rodriguez (Rico on Six Feet Under), Elijah Wood, and Lindsay Lohan.

Estevez spins out these made-up stories on one fateful day, June 4, in the tumultuous year of 1968. Every Vietnam veteran knows what was going on in 1968: the war was raging in Southeast Asia and the anti-war movement had begun to pick up big-time steam back home. It was the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the Tet Offensive. Bobby Kennedy was in the center of the national political action on June 4, storming his way to the Democratic presidential nomination based largely on his uncompromising antiwar platform.

June 4 was the day of the California primary and the night that Kennedy would appear at the Ambassador Hotel to declare his victory. Estevez’s characters wend their way through that day and night, leading up to what we all know happened after midnight as Kennedy made his way through the hotel’s crowded, chaotic kitchen after his victory speech in the hotel’s ballroom.

The war is integral to the movie. Estevez makes good use of real wartime footage, including grainy close-ups of GIs humping body bags onto waiting helicopters. His many characters include two whose lives that day were shaped immutably by the war: a young couple played by Wood and Lohan. The two, who are little more than friends, decide to get married June 4 at the hotel for one reason so that young Wood will not go to Vietnam.

It’s unclear exactly how this marriage will get the Wood character out of going to war. If he’s married, the Lohan character tells another character, he wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam; he would go to Germany. But that’s not how it worked in 1968. There were plenty of married guys in Vietnam. Plus, it’s not clear whether the character portrayed by Wood is in the military or about to join or get drafted. He has longish curly hair and long sideburns, which would indicate he was a civilian.

As for Bobby as a whole, it’s long gone from the theaters. It should be out on DVD sometime soon. Rent it with the expectation of being taken back to one fateful day in 1968 through the vehicle of a high-minded but ultimately disappointing Hollywood movie.

A THOUSAND WORDS

After the Fog, a powerful 75-minute film that deals with the personal experiences of a dozen war veterans, is made up exclusively of tightly shot, talking-head interviews with veterans. Filmmaker Jay Craven does not give the viewer a single war image. The unadorned testimony of the veterans, though, imparts immediacy and evokes the war and postwar experiences they relate.

The group is made up of five World War II veterans, two veterans of the Iraq War, and five Vietnam veterans: Dave Bressem, Wayne Karlin, David Underwood, Dan Walsh, and George Williams. All of the interviewees are well spoken. All of them have faced the crucible of armed combat overseas, and all of their lives have been profoundly affected by their war experiences.

Craven, who teaches film at Marlboro College in Vermont, shows that fighting in a war leaves a permanent mark on one’s psyche. That’s true for the veterans of all wars, including World War II, the so-called “good war.” It was especially true for Vietnam veterans, who faced a deeply divided nation when they returned home from an increasingly unpopular war.

And it is true for the veterans of the current conflict, despite the fact that virtually all Americans, whether they are in favor of the war or not, support the troops. “I think about [the war] every day,” says Abbie Pickett, one of the two Iraq War veterans interviewed in the film. Her words echo the thoughts of the eleven other veterans in the film, who are one and two generations older.

After the Fog was first shown last October at the Vermont International Film Festival. It appeared on WGBH, the PBS station in Boston, in November and will be screened at various venues in 2007. For more information about the film, including its availability on DVD, go to www.kingdomcounty.com/fog.html or call
802-592-3190.

SIXTIES STAND

The Branson, Missouri, show # 1 Hits of the 60’s bills itself as “two hours of high energy, non-stop singing and dancing featuring 12 of the finest singer/actor/dancers & musicians to be found anywhere.” That live music-and-dancing show, which includes a video tribute to Vietnam veterans, has just produced a two-tune music CD, “STAND for the Troops.” All of the profits from the CD’s sales are going to VVA, along with the Armed Forces Relief Fund, Operation Helmet, and the Branson Veterans Task Force.

The CD contains lavish arrangements of the Nam vet favorite, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” along with Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” and includes President Bush’s thoughts on the bravery and dedication of American troops. For more info, go to the web site www.standforthetroops.org which contains a page about VVA.

SEMPER FI MUSEUM

The National Museum of the U.S. Marine Corps opened on November 10, the Marine Corps’ 231st birthday, just outside the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia. Thousands of visitors, a good many of them former Marines, were on hand for the opening ceremonies for the first phase of the $90 million, 118,000-square-foot museum, which is now open to the public every day except Christmas.

When it is completed, the museum will house thousands of artifacts, photographs, and letters. Today, the museum is divided into separate galleries that provide high-tech, multi-media, ultra-realistic exhibits focusing on different wars. The Vietnam War exhibit is made up of life-sized re-creations of individual Marines, tanks, Jeeps, Vietnamese civilians, and a real CH-46 helicopter. Visitors descend from the helicopter’s ramp into a realistic tableau of Marines mounting a siege on a hill in South Vietnam.

ARTS IN BRIEF

Bruce Weigl, the acclaimed poet who did a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty as a U.S. Army infantryman, has won his share of awards during his literary career, which began in the late seventies. The latest: the $150,000 Lannan Literary Award for Poetry. Wiegl, who teaches at Lorain County Community College in his Ohio hometown, has written nine books of poetry, including Song of Napalm (1988). His other awards include a Yaddo Foundation Fellowship, the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Bread Loaf Fellowship in Poetry, two Pushcart Prizes, and the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award in 1987. Brian Turner, an Iraq war veteran and award-winning poet, received one of the five 2006 Lannan Foundation Writing Fellowships

On Veterans Day, four accomplished Vietnam War veteran writers—Larry Heinemann, Jack Fuller, Philip Caputo, and Robert Olen Butler—took part in a roundtable discussion in Chicago on Nam lit. C-SPAN’s Book TV covered the event, broadcast it December 23, and will re-broadcast it in 2007. Check Book TV’s listings because this was an exceptional discussion by four articulate, informed, and opinionated men that ranged from the Vietnam War to today’s conflict in Iraq. All have received VVA Excellence in the Arts Awards.

Nicholas Proffitt, the former Newsweek Vietnam War correspondent, died November 10 of kidney cancer. He was 63 years old. Proffitt is best known for his novel Gardens of Stone (1983), which is based on his pre-Vietnam War tour of duty with the Army’s Honor Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, and later was made into a Hollywood movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola. His 1986 novel Embassy House dealt with CIA operations in the Vietnam War.

Dr. Alex Moreano, an Albuquerque ear, nose, and throat surgeon, went to Vietnam for several weeks in 2003 to volunteer at a hospital in Hue. His son, Keir Moreano, has produced and directed As the Call, So the Echo, a moving documentary of his father’s humanitarian mission that appeared on the film circuit scene last year and had a brief run in movie theaters in New York in November. Future plans include the possibility of showings on HBO or PBS and distribution of a DVD. For more info, go to www.asthecall.com

The documentary The Last Ghost of War, which deals with the legacy of Agent Orange, is being considered for broadcast by PBS with the support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Producers Janet Gardner and Pham Quoc Thai have asked VVA members who have contacts with PBS to put in a good word about the film, since it is extremely difficult to get documentaries of this sort on the national PBS schedule. For more info about the movie, go to www.gardnerdocgroup.com

Twyla Tharp continued her good deeds for Vietnam veterans and for VVA last year when she invited the VVA national staff to be her guests at the opening night performance in early December of the road show of Movin’ Out at the National Theatre in Washington. The national tour of that rousing show based on Billy Joel tunes and amazing Tharp-created dancing (with a Vietnam War theme) finished a three-year run in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 21. The tour received the 2005 “Best New Musical” and “Best Choreography” Awards from The League of American Theatres and Producers Touring Broadway Awards.

Bruce Solheim, who teaches a Vietnam War history class at Citrus College in Glendora, California, has started a program at that institution called the Veteran’s Fund to provide financial assistance to students who have served in the military. “Citrus College currently has over 400 student veterans, and that number is likely to increase in the coming years,” Solheim said. “Many of them have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with financial, psychological, and physical challenges. We want to make their transition to civilian life easier as a way of thanking them for their service.”

You can add movie star Denzel Washington to the list of celebs who have supported the newest generation of veterans. Washington visited the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in December 2004, took part in a Purple Heart awarding ceremony, and toured the Fisher House facilities, which house families of wounded veterans. Washington promised to support the Fisher House program (although, he did not, as the Internet rumor has it, “pull out his checkbook” and write a big check on the spot). Washington did subsequently write that big check and is now on the Fisher House Board of Trustees. For a list of the officers and board of the Fisher House, go to www.fisherhouse.org/aboutUs/board.shtml

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