‘Bobby Kennedy for President’ is surprisingly thoughtful take on complex figure

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The docuseries has been a dependable source of quality content on Netflix for quite some time, and the streaming service’s latest addition is no exception.

“Bobby Kennedy for President,” a four-part documentary directed by Dawn Porter, feels very different from the somewhat exploitative nature of series such as “Making a Murderer.” Instead of taking an aggressive approach, Porter is content to provide an honest profile of a figure from the early years of his political career to his tragic end.

“Bobby Kennedy for President” builds a fascinating profile of Robert Kennedy, who often lived under the shadow of his charismatic older brother and President John F. Kennedy. Interviews with Kennedy’s contemporaries, from celebrity ally Harry Belafonte to activist Dolores Huerta, confirm Bobby was not that impressive in person — he’s often described in the docuseries as a pale, sickly looking man with piercing blue eyes.

The contradiction between political legend and reality lays the groundwork for the conflicting views about Kennedy in the first two episodes of the series. Early on, the public view of Kennedy is portrayed as near-scathing, with many feeling he is complicit in many of the “Red Scare” communist hunting tactics due to his working with Joseph McCarthy. Even as his brother wins the 1960 election, many are wary of his leadership.

When his brother is assassinated, Kennedy’s seen mostly as a source of grief. That’s when the series does something incredible — switching seamlessly from the public’s view of Kennedy to a view of who he actually was. The drama is ready-made here, from  butting heads with Lyndon B. Johnson to ascending within the Senate.

“Bobby Kennedy for President” does an exhilarating job of putting the audience in the shoes of the 1960s public. Most series about high-profile politicians make the era feel
inaccessible, but in a time when politics are more important than ever, Porter finds the relevancy of the scrutiny of Kennedy’s public image and policy.

What’s particularly compelling here is Kennedy’s relationship with civil rights. Early on, it’s emphasized that the African-American community initially does not read his attempts to reach out as genuine. Rather, they think he is trying to come in and “fix” their community without any consultation from the actual community leaders. However, it becomes clear over time that his willingness to learn is genuine, and the picture of Robert F. Kennedy comes into focus — that of a flawed, ultimately good man who tried to do some good. The fervor surrounding his bid for the presidency is suddenly understandable and portrayed in dazzling fashion.

Of course, this all comes to an end when gunman Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Kennedy on June 5, 1968. That’s when the series, in its final episode, takes a hard swerve into completely different territory. For its final episode, one would be forgiven for thinking they’d started watching another show entirely.

Suddenly, the show is all about conspiracy theories and the gunman. While this would make for an interesting enough series on its own, it really detracts from the genuine exploration of a complicated man that made the other three episodes so great.

Still, the virtues of “Bobby Kennedy for President” far outweigh the negatives. Taking an analytical eye to a beloved political figure is always risky territory, but if the first three episodes of Porter’s series proves anything, it’s that sometimes you might just be surprised to find goodness at their core.

 

“Bobby Kennedy for President”

Episodes: 4

Score: 4/5