Charming. Young. Energetic. For many Americans in the 1960s, the Kennedy family embodied the idea of a newer, stronger country. Unfortunately, these hopes were cut short when John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, were assassinated just years apart. This year at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Bobby Kennedy for President,” an episodic documentary from Netflix, follows the life and legacy of Bobby Kennedy and explores who he was before he died.
Directed by Dawn Porter, this four-hour documentary begins by focusing not on Kennedy’s 1968 presidential candidacy, but on his life and political work before the campaign. The opening shots of the documentary detail just how loved Bobby Kennedy was by the American people. Porter utilizes footage of adoring crowds cheering on the politician and reaching out to shake his hand to emphasize the cult-like following he accumulated and that followed him.
In his family life, Kennedy was just as charming and admired as he was in public. Porter uses never before seen footage of the Kennedy family, including intimate home videos and interviews, to paint an idealized and sometimes excessively complimentary view of the family, who all appear young, attractive and vivacious.
Still, there was another side to Kennedy, as the documentary attempts to show. Featuring interviews by Representative John Lewis and singer Harry Belafonte, the film traces Kennedy’s struggles to fully accept the civil rights movement and his ruthless political ambition that originally led him to distance himself from leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. And yet, he is absolved in the end, as the documentary shows his transformation from a cold attorney general to a warm supporter of equal rights.
Following the screening of the film, there was a panel, featuring Porter, Ambassador William Vanden Heuvel, Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kerry Kennedy and Juan Romero, the busboy at the Ambassador hotel who was with Kennedy when he was assassinated. Each panelist told the audience about their own personal experiences with the politician and how his strong moral compass guided him toward a life of public service. Kerry Kennedy fondly remembered her father and explained how she tries to carry on his legacy, even today.
But it was Romero who gave the most heartfelt tribute to the fallen candidate. He described meeting Kennedy in his hotel room, saying that, “when he’s looking at you, he’s not looking past you.”
As Romero, Porter and the other panelists explained, part of Kennedy’s charm was his ability to make his audience feel as though they were the only ones in the room. At one point, Romero choked up while remembering his brief encounter with Kennedy, which he said has left a lasting impression on him.
Overall, “Bobby Kennedy for President” made a successful Tribeca debut. The documentary is chock full of intimate and detailed footage that allows the audience to feel as though they are part of Kennedy’s inner circle. And while it may seem overly flattering at times, the film does counter that narrative, and provides an in depth look at the life of a young leader, who might have led the country if given the chance.
“Bobby Kennedy for President” is available for streaming on Netflix.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 30 print edition. Email Lily Dolin at [email protected].