Where to Watch: Netflix
Air date: Friday, April 27, premiere
Nearly 50 years after Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, Dawn Porter’s four-part, 245-minute docuseries Bobby Kennedy for President, about his 83-day campaign, streams on Netflix starting April 27. Kennedy went from a coldhearted Communist hunter to a transformative icon of compassion, struck down by bullets just after he won the California primary that might have propelled him to the White House.
Porter, a rising-star director previously honored at Sundance and the Independent Spirit awards, tells an astounding story without any of the wise talking-head historians you find in a Ken Burns documentary, explaining it all for you. Instead, she focuses on people who were actually there: Martin Luther King Jr. associate Rep. John Lewis; labor activist Dolores Huerta; Kennedy campaigner Harry Belafonte; Paul Schrade, who was shot alongside Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June 1968; and Juan Romero, the busboy who cradled the candidate’s head after he was shot.
If you remember 1968, their reminiscences and the wealth of archival footage Porter has unearthed will bring it all back. Kennedy grows before your eyes. At first, he was a guy who authorized wiretaps on King, so ruthless that President John F. Kennedy had said, “I love my brother Bobby, but he’s a cop at heart. If he didn’t have someone to arrest he’d arrest Rose [their mom].” His coldest fury was reserved for JFK’s successor Lyndon Johnson, whom he called “an animal.” According to Robert Caro's landmark Johnson biography and Jeff Shesol's book Mutual Contempt (neither quoted in the doc), when he heard Bobby Kennedy was shot, Johnson said, “Is he dead yet?” and asked about keeping him from being buried near his brother in Arlington Cemetery.
But Kennedy’s hatred of Johnson and others was offset by a growing, socially conscious kind of love for humanity as he campaigned for president after Johnson declined to run, his own presidency ruined by Vietnam. Kennedy’s visits to the underprivileged in Appalachia, Mississippi and the California grape fields made him a new man, a champion for the downtrodden and a beacon for the idealistic young. In one funny scene, he confronts a California official who arrested farmworkers because they were “ready to violate the law” — but actually had done nothing illegal at all. Incredulous, his eyes twinkling with an amused outrage, Kennedy advises the official to “use the lunch hour to read the Constitution.”
If you don’t remember 1968, Porter’s no-narrator method makes it a bit hard to keep track of that year’s multiple disasters. As Bobby’s friend and great journalist Pete Hamill recalls on camera, “Martin King had been killed, Malcolm X had been killed. It was like some kind of shooting gallery instead of a civilization.” Right after King’s death, the viewer sees Kennedy making America more civilized, calming an Indianapolis crowd quoting the moving words of his favorite poet, Aeschylus, and perhaps preventing a riot the week dozens of other U.S. towns erupted in flames.
The fourth and last episode in the series is a clunker, featuring the theory that Kennedy's convicted killer Sirhan Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian outraged by the candidate's support for Israel, didn’t really kill him — or at least didn't act alone. We hear a disturbing audiotape of an allegedly hypnotized Sirhan being coached by his defense team to recall his crime, which he says he doesn't remember, and Schrade says it couldn't have happened the way prosecutors said. Schrade has no memory of what happened after he himself was shot, and the doc doesn't present a coherent alternative-assassin theory, nor refute Sirhan's confession, apprehension with a hot pistol, and possession of a notebook in which he repeatedly wrote, “RFK must die!” But the scene of Schrade meeting Romero is moving, and the first three episodes are a must-see for history buffs, making Kennedy, for the first time, a documentary movie star.