Profile Emilio Estevez

The former Brat Pack actor is the unlikely director of a film about the killing of Robert F Kennedy.

The footage of Robert F Kennedy himself is the most remarkable thing about Bobby, the forthcoming film about the day he was shot and killed, having just won the support of California on an anti-war ticket. Try closing your eyes and imagining the words of the idealistic Democrat presidential candidate and former attorney general issuing from the lips of a US politician today: "What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by an assassin's bullet . . . whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded."

At a school, he gently lectures a group of children on caring for the environment: "There are laws we can pass about dumping and putting refuse into rivers and into the air . . . I think that the interest you take in this is what will make the difference in this country." Here is a glimpse of an America that could have gone in a very different direction, and that many of us have forgotten existed.

The film, which has been described as a call to arms for liberal America, is released in the UK on 26 January. When it premièred at Cannes it was given a seven-minute standing ovation. It has already been nominated for a clutch of awards, including Best Motion Picture - Drama at the Golden Globes, and it is now tipped for an Oscar.

Such accolades are more a tribute to the spirit of Kennedy than an objective assessment of the film itself, which, despite an all-star cast (Anthony Hopkins, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, Laurence Fishburne, Lindsay Lohan), lapses too often into tooth-grinding cliché. Nevertheless, it has clearly struck a chord at a time when Americans (and non-Americans, too) need reminding that their nation was not ever thus.

The unlikely force behind Bobby is the former Brat Pack actor Emilio Estevez. Best known as the chiselled star of the 1980s classic teen movies Repo Man and The Breakfast Club, Estevez not only wrote and directed the film, but spent the best part of ten years trying to get it made. He has called it his "life's work", arguing passionately about the historical importance of the assassination: "I believe the death of Bobby Kennedy was in many ways the death of decency in America . . . we unravelled, culturally, at that point and went into free fall. And I don't think we've completely put the pieces back together again."

Inspired by the more nuanced films of Robert Altman, Bobby tells the story of 5 January 1968 through the experiences of some of the guests at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where RFK was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian-born gunman. A Hispanic kitchen porter befriends the wise black chef; a hairdresser discovers her husband is having an affair; two college students take LSD for the first time. The characters are eventually brought together to witness the shooting as the presidential candidate - who appears in clips from real footage - leaves the hotel through the kitchen.

The success of the film has taken Estevez, as much as anyone else, by surprise. Before its release he had spent years languishing in the Hollywood wilderness after a series of unfortunate career choices (the Mighty Ducks trilogy, for example) and an expensive divorce from the singer-turned-X Factor judge Paula Abdul. He had been forced to sell his home and to cash in his pension, and has admitted that he anxiously used to google his own name in vain. "He has seen both sides of Hollywood - when people love you and when they rip you apart," says Holly Wiersma, one of the producers of Bobby. "And as a result of that, he was strong enough to say, 'I'm going to choose my own direction.'"

Even so, Bobby was not an easy project to get off the ground. It was turned down by every independent production company in LA, and languished until the British film executive Stewart Till took it on and developed it. "I've never really understood why he had so much trouble getting it made," says Till. "The budget was never high, and it was always likely that he would be able to attract an incredible cast. I suppose people are nervous of political films, and I think there was some cynicism about it. You don't naturally assume that an actor will be able to write, but when I read the script I was blown away."

Till's company collapsed before the project was finished, and Estevez went back to the drawing board. He eventually found a sponsor in the Belgian producer Michel Litvak, at the small price of writing a part for Litvak's wife, Svetlana Metkina, into the film - she appears prominently alongside the Hollywood glitterati. "Actually, in Hollywood that kind of thing is not unusual," says Wiersma touchily. "Emilio doesn't compromise - meeting her inspired him to write the part." Once funding was in place, the cast gradually came together - beginning with Anthony Hopkins, Estevez's next-door neighbour in Malibu, and Demi Moore, his former fiancée.

In some ways, it is fitting that Estevez has emerged as a champion of the Hollywood left. His family, under the influence of his father, Martin Sheen, resembles the Hollywood mirror image or counterpart of the Kennedy political dynasty.

Sheen has actually played Bobby - in the 1974 film The Missiles of October - and more recently appeared as the progressive president Josiah Bartlet - possibly the closest America has come to a Bobby successor - in the hugely popular political TV series The West Wing.

In real life, Sheen is a committed political activist. In 1967, he took his five-year-old son to a political rally where the boy shook Bobby Kennedy's hand. Two years later, the pair visited the Ambassador Hotel and stood tearfully on the spot where Kennedy was shot. Estevez gave his father a prominent part in the film. "In a sense, this film was a family project," says Freddy Rodríguez, who plays a character based on the kitchen porter who prayed with Kennedy as he died. "It is as if Emilio absorbed it by osmosis."

Parallel lives

Perhaps it was the parallels between their family backgrounds that helped draw Estevez towards the figure of Bobby. Like RFK, Emilio has a famous brother (Charlie Sheen was another member of the Brat Pack). And Emilio's father looms large, as Bobby's father did: as a teenager, Este vez changed his name to avoid being associated with Sheen. He has always said he is determined to "earn" rather than inherit his place in Hollywood. Despite that, Sheen has said that he is "closest to Emilio on many levels". (Kennedy Sr once said: "Bobby resembles me more than any of the other children. He has the same capacity for likes and dislikes, for love and hate.")

Some critics have found Bobby too idealistic about Kennedy (Estevez concurs that he is "unapologetically earnest"). The film makes no mention of Bobby's connections to the communist-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy, with whom he collaborated while working as attorney general. Neither, despite extensive references to Martin Luther King, does it mention that RFK had authorised the FBI to tap King's phone. Estevez defends his decision to paint RFK in glowing colours, insisting that the death of his brother transformed Kennedy. "He set about remaking himself. And he did."

Like all "pure-bred" sons of Hollywood, Este vez likes his good guys good and his bad guys bad. The Kennedy we see in Bobby is a foil to the man currently in the White House, and a symbol of all that the American left feels it has lost; a leader who talked about unification and responsibility rather than aggression and self-interest.

Despite its flaws, perhaps the film will show a later generation that politics can be positive and involving for ordinary citizens. As Bobby said so many decades ago, it is the interest they take that will make the difference in their country.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics