Emilio Estevez is no Robert Altman. We know that going in, of course, yet too many people are assuming that because the young upstart does not match the master, his film is wanting, as if the mere effort is to be dismissed as arrogance. No one will ever top Altman’s gift for juggling large casts, overlapping dialogue, and the mess of human relationships, so why bother trying, right? Fortunately, writer/director Estevez has taken a chance; a big chance, really, given the rabid critics waiting in the wings for such a project to fail. After all, Estevez is far from a major talent, having spent most of his years making forgettable comedies and living in the shadow of both his father and brother. So imagine, a man who actually has less to offer than the likes of Charlie Sheen, pulling no punches and tackling an American icon in a narrative style rarely tried by American filmmakers. It has all the makings of a colossal failure, and one can almost see the muckraking books that speak to bloated budgets, unchecked egos, and embarrassing script rewrites. And yet, Bobby is far from the expected failure. Perhaps it lacks the scope and raw insight of an Altman circus, but it succeeds on its own terms, and manages to be both compelling and moving, despite the fact that it doesn’t quite reach similar thematic heights.

Unlike Altman’s pageants of humanity, which always tackled larger, more ambitious game, Bobby is just a single day from our past, that of California’s Democratic primary in June of 1968, when it seemed that Robert F. Kennedy was on the verge of capturing the party’s nomination for president, and subsequently, the White House. The film never leaves the famed Ambassador Hotel, following managers, busboys, cooks, switchboard operators, and starlets, as they all prepare for Senator Kennedy’s arrival later that evening. John Casey (Anthony Hopkins), who worked for decades at the hotel, is now retired, but can’t seem to let go. He chats and plays chess with Nelson (Harry Belafonte), an old friend who seems doomed to settle into the indignities of old age. Paul (William H. Macy) is the manager of the establishment, and he spends his time firing the racist kitchen manager Timmons (Christian Slater), bedding employee Angela (Heather Graham), and facing up to his betrayals with wife Miriam (Sharon Stone). Busboy Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) would rather be attending a baseball game later that night (Don Drysdale is gunning for a record-setting shutout), but is forced to work a double shift along with the fiery Miguel (Jacob Vargas), who fancies himself a revolutionary. There’s Edward (Laurence Fishburne), a cook who’s been around a bit, which means he’s learned when to stand up for himself, and when to shut the hell up just to get along. We also have two young Kennedy volunteers who experiment with LSD for the first time, as well as the young twit who sells it to them, the always obnoxious Ashton Kutcher.

While the film has the trappings of soap opera, it succeeds precisely because it keeps the melodrama to a minimum, focusing instead on small moments that might mean something at a later date (Lindsay Lohan plays a girl who marries Elijah Wood so that he can avoid Vietnam, not realizing that he’s likely gay), but whose ramifications are not immediately clear. Characters are thin, though not to the point of frustration, because the audience is literally dropped into the middle of the situation and not expected to know more than is necessary. Remember, that terrible day started and proceeded just like any other, and to inject artificial meaning into the surroundings would be to falsify history, as well as unfairly look on those events with privileged, yet-to-occur information. As such, these characters do not stand for anything, contrary to what some reviews are claiming, and if they are mere “traits” rather than human beings, let it be said once again that we are only seeing a small segment of lives that came before — and will live on after — the brutal murder in the Ambassador’s kitchen. These folks are defiantly ordinary, and it wouldn’t work any other way.

Lacking any fireworks (except, perhaps, Kutcher’s bad wig and sweetheart Demi’s ham-fisted drunkenness), we wait patiently for the event that will throw the world into chaos once again. It’s a pleasant wait, however, and despite anticipating howlers of dialogue, or absurd plot turns, the vignettes kept me thoroughly engaged. Estevez lacks Altman’s roving eye and use of camera (little by way of technique stands out), but one appreciates his restraint in not pushing emulation too far (except for the annoying Czech reporter, who is too obvious a parallel to Nashville’s Opal). In many ways, I’m glad the reviews have been largely negative, because I was able to keep expectations low and settle in, when otherwise I would have been looking for a masterpiece in every shot. But it’s more than that; it’s a film that takes an unforgettable event, sniffs around the edges, and ends up with a portrait of shattered lives in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy. Is this yet another “end of the innocence” or death of idealism so often regurgitated by nostalgic hippies who have yet to accept that their time has passed? Maybe, but that’s an acceptable cinematic journey in itself, and may be as revealing as a more critical examination of the man, the myth, or the period.

As this is no biopic, or conspiracy maze involving second gunmen and chicks in polka dot dresses (one loony book said that just such a woman ran from the hotel that day, screaming, “We got him!”), it makes no effort to tackle the Kennedy issue itself, which is far from settled, then and now. RFK is presently lionized as an anti-war idealist who brought America as close to paradise as any one man could, though the romantic gloss has obscured far more complexity, as well as the irrefutable evidence that even had Kennedy lived, Hubert Humphrey had already secured the nomination the moment he announced. People tend to forget that Humphrey was the DNC’s golden child, and having not entered the primaries himself, he was counting on the convention’s delegates to throw the nomination his way (which were already pledged to Humphrey and assured by LBJ himself). Even after RFK’s victory in California, he still trailed eventual also-ran Eugene McCarthy, who was actually the preferred choice of most of the anti-war left. The film never approaches this reality amidst illusion, but a line from Kennedy himself on a background television betrays the true grimness of his cause. If he were to lose California, Kennedy said, he would drop out of the race altogether. Unless he was significantly behind in the delegate count, why would he make this rather bold declaration? RFK’s assassination was a terrible event to be sure (especially in light of Martin Luther King’s violent death two months earlier), but his murder did not keep him from the White House. The Democratic voters would have ensured that all by themselves.

And yet, I defy anyone to remain unmoved by the final scenes, as the madness of the moment (from applause and orgasmic highs, to gunfire, to sobs and disbelief, all in the span of a few minutes) plays before us while the soundtrack rings with what must be called one of the great political speeches of our time. Kennedy may have been a latecomer to the anti-war movement (he was a hawk most of his life), discovered civil rights much too late to effect real change (his was a voice of caution and restraint as Attorney General), and been too obsessed with communism while the Constitution was set aflame (he worked closely — and agreeably — with Joseph McCarthy), but his rhetoric, even at the end of his days, still has the power to enlighten and inspire. Sure, the passionate words may reveal that Estevez was after the same lost idealism with his movie, but he earns our respect by following through on his vision to the very last frame. And even though Estevez reinforces the myths about Kennedy that persist to this very day, it’s an acceptable revisionism because it remains so pervasive. Estevez (because of a few swipes at our current electoral debacle) clearly believes that America has never been the same since Kennedy’s murder, and we blanket ourselves with the same comforting lies.

For similar delusions, the documentary One Bright Shining Moment is also worth a spin. “If only” goes the refrain, even though, despite the headshaking and shedding of tears, Nixon would have won 1968 with Kennedy, and most assuredly did with a similarly attractive candidate — George McGovern — in 1972. Those were the times — reaction, law and order, veiled racism, and anyone not of LBJ’s shattered party — and we spoke with fear, not hope. Somehow, though, it’s easier to live with the belief that RFK represented a larger slice of the country than he actually did. His was a campaign on the fringe, not on the verge. But Estevez takes us back, warts and all, and his effort makes it worth the trip. Perhaps we want more — we always do, it seems — but for once, it feels just right. Take the film, then, as an attempted resurrection; the exhumation of a political corpse that always stands in judgment of our retreat from the course he so firmly set. Estevez wants a return — craves it, as all hagiographers do — but as those words play before us, so unfamiliar in our own depressing culture of diminished expectations, we realize with a start that he’s actually writing a collective obituary for the modern age. Not only would no one now dare speak in such a manner, but it’s just as likely that no one even believes in it enough to try. The ideals themselves, not just the political courage to utter them aloud, are what really died on that cold floor in Los Angeles.