Except for the eyes, Linus Roache doesn’t much look like Robert Kennedy. But those eyes are crucial. Behind them, we have to believe the mind will undergo a radical transformation. And has there ever been a sadder pair of politician’s eyes than Bobby’s, so much brokenness that mended badly, such swimming up from despairing bends toward an empathic grasp of all who were bereft? “For them, like a prince,” Robert Lowell would later write, “you daily left your tower / To walk through dirt in your best cloth. Here now, / alone, in my Plutarchan bubble, I miss / you, you out of Plutarch, made by hand – / Forever approaching our maturity.”
Roache – who made an indelible impression last April in HBO’s The Gathering Storm as Ralph Wigram, the Foreign Office worrywart who slipped intelligence secrets on German rearmament to Winston Churchill – seems to specialize in the stricken conscience. While RFK, directed by Robert Dornhelm from a script by Hank Steinberg for which Richard N. Goodwin is the executive consultant, sticks mostly to the five years between assassinations, they were the years that Bobby, rubbed raw by the death of his brother, all of a sudden felt everybody else’s pain, from Bed-Stuy, Watts, and the Mississippi Delta all the way to Johannesburg, and turned against the war in Vietnam. We follow Roache to these precincts of the dispossessed. We are there when César Chávez (Jacob Vargas) is too weak from a hunger strike to read a speech on “manliness” and “sacrifice” to his migrant workers’ union, and so Bobby reads it for him. After which, “unacceptable” would became Robert Kennedy’s mantra, as “intolerable” had been Wittgenstein’s.
Besides Vargas as Chávez, RFK’s spear-carriers include James Cromwell as Lyndon Johnson, David Paymer as Richard Goodwin, Ving Rhames as Judge Thomas R. Jones, Sergio Di Zio as Adam Walinsky, Marnie McPhail as Ethel Kennedy, and Martin Donovan as the ghost of JFK. (This, of course, is a hoary gimmick. Still, it permits Bobby to feel doubtful, guilty, even scared, without resorting to a single portentous voice-over.) Their exertions may not change a single mind already made up about the nation’s younger brother. But at least RFK, like Bobby himself, has come a long way from Camelot, that swashbuckling James Bond wet dream of witty violence, insolent cool, dry martinis, killer gadgets, musical beds, and gang-bang counterinsurgency scenarios. And it is sobering to recall a time, not so very long ago, although it somehow seems prehistoric, when politicians were as interesting as Vaclav Havel or Nelson Mandela; when a candidate for the presidency copied into his private journal resonant quotations from Camus, Orwell, and this, from Hemingway:
“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.”
If RFK inspires in you a nostalgia for bygone causes like social justice, switch the following night to A&E for a special edition of Investigative Reports, in which we are told that things have actually gotten worse for the poor in America in the 34 years since Robert Kennedy’s assassination. While Wage Slaves briefly consults a couple of economists who seem never to have left their soft-soap bubble at George Mason University, most of its two hours are based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s surprise best-seller Nickel and Dimed, for which the wonderfully witty but equally ferocious social critic tried to live on what she could earn in a series of minimum-wage jobs. Ehrenreich herself appears between drumrolls of dread statistics and camera visitations to the working poor in Miami, Las Vegas, Birmingham, and Los Angeles.
In Brief Bitter Harvest (August 22; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13), the latest edition of the new PBS international-reporting series Wide Angle, goes to Afghanistan to look at opium making a comeback, and from there on the old Silk Road turned Heroin Trail through Central Asia to such garden spas as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Produced by Chris Hilton, hosted by Daljit Dhaliwal.
Johnson County War (August 24; 7 to 11 p.m.; Hallmark), an irresistible miniseries from the indefatigable Larry McMurtry, stars Tom Berenger, Burt Reynolds, Luke Perry, Michelle Forbes, and Rachel Ward in an oatmeal epic about homesteaders versus cattle barons in 1892 Wyoming.
Hysterical Blindness (August 25; 9:30 to 11:15 p.m.; HBO) brings Laura Cahill’s play about blue-collar New Jersey women at an impasse to the small screen with considerable style. Uma Thurman, Juliette Lewis, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, and Justin Chambers are directed by Mira Nair, while Cyndi Lauper sings. Never mind that Uma’s loneliness is hard to believe. Let Gena and Ben remind you of old John Cassavetes movies.
Gods and Goddesses (August 26; 9 to 11 p.m.; History Channel) tells us everything we should already have known but have maybe forgotten about Aphrodite, Demeter, Apollo, Cassandra, Tantalus, and other Attic legends from the old Greek major leagues, all of them mythologized by the very first sportswriter, in 750 B.C., named Homer. Many vistas, too, to look at.
Hollywood Rocks the Movies: The 1970s (August 30; 8 to 10 p.m.; AMC), with David Bowie hosting a look at what rock and roll, punk, reggae, funk, and disco did to American films in the seventies, kicks off AMC’s tenth annual Film Preservation Festival, with a Labor Day weekend that includes Saturday Night Fever, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, A Star Is Born, and Thank God It’s Friday.
The Biographer: The Secret Life of Princess Di (September 1; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) asks us to be so morbidly interested in the dead Diana and her odd biographer, Andrew Morton, as to sit still for a TV movie in which Paul McGann plays Morton, Faye Dunaway plays his journalistic competition, Hugh Bonneville is an intermediary between scribbler and princess, and the tell-all is all in Di’s words. If you care about Di’s relationship to her biographer, what’s wrong with you?
Sunday, August 25; 8 to 10 p.m.; FX.
Wage Slaves: Not Getting By in America
Monday, August 26; 9 to 11 p.m.; A&E.