One Thousand Pictures: RFK's Last Journey

One Thousand Pictures: RFK's Last Journey

****1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

After his assassination, Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy lay in repose in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. When it was time to take him to Arlington, to bury him beside his brother, his coffin, draped in the American flag, was loaded upon a train.

Crowds gathered.

Copy picture

The 225 miles of track were thronged, by children, students, soldiers, firemen, mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. Some saluted, some cried, some stood with hands on hearts. Aboard, Robert's press secretary realised something momentous was happening - Frank Mankiewicz could not explain it, but photograph Paul Fusco could capture it. As he states, interviewed now, "I must have taken 1000 pictures". This is the story of those photographs, and those in it, and that day.

The research involved is stunning, to find so many of those people, to get them to tell their stories, to do so with such deftness and skill. Personal tragedies are woven into a national tragedy by this train and its journey, depicted in the photographs of that day. Indeed, some of those tragedies involve that journey directly, shockingly so. This film is full of surprises.

That RFK was assassinated is relatively common knowledge, but his funereal procession's course is less so. His was the only night burial at the Arlington National Ceremony, lit by flares and candles, the late hour a product of the slow pace of that last journey.

The interviews are shot in black and white, crisp against a plain background, on a big screen showing every wrinkle, smile, and tear. The only colour is archival, film shot from the train, of the train, and Fusco's photographs. Those interviewed carry their pictures from that day, talk about what happened, what that day meant, what the photographs meant. There are so many stories here, all affecting, all touching, all well presented and told.

Produced by Jennifer Stoddart, with the assistance of HBO, this is glossy, high quality. One suspects that it might make one of those Taschen books that are themselves documentary treasures, like Mailer's Moonfire. Robert Kennedy is a fascinating subject, and to hear him speak is a joy - IM Pei took words from his speeches for his memorial, and we hear here his address in South Africa, the Eulogy from his brother Edward with that immortal line "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not." We hear him quote from Tacitus, those rolling cadences - Jack may have had the charisma, Teddy the luck, but Robert was an orator nonpareil.

Here, a story about him is told, and so too about those who witnessed that last journey, and what happened to them before, and since. It's visually striking, crisp in composition, let down only by a score from Musicotopia that sometimes feels overbearing - stirring music sometimes threatens to drown out the speeches, and given their lyric timbre that is a shame.

At a bit under 40 minutes it's a slightly odd length, but it would fit into any television documentary strand with ease. In the company of shorter films it stands distinct. One cannot be certain if it would extend to feature length; certainly as a slice of that long day, that journey, it feels sufficient. That oddity of length notwithstanding, this is tremendous.

After 40 years, it is hard to understand how much Robert meant to America at the time, how great his role was in that Camelot. Months after the death of Martin Luther King, his own brother's assassination a wound to the national psyche, his presidential campaign was a beacon of hope to many, even millions. A handful are able to talk about it here.

Stoddart's film is moving, affecting. The words of a nun, of a fireman, of wives and mothers in monologues to camera, as the images unfold. Sam Montague's photography is striking, the monochrome gaze unflinching. Then there are Fusco's photographs, some blurred, some crowded, some empty, all moving. At the end, he somehow picks his favourite. As the sum, and surround, of that one image, One Thousand Pictures should be one of your favourites too.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2010
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Documentary on the journey of Robert Kennedy's funeral train.
Amazon link

Year: 2009

Runtime: 38 minutes

Country: UK

Festivals:

EIFF 2010
Glasgow 2011

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