An ensemble drama swirling around a history-changing event, the surprisingly masterful Bobby washes over you as a lament for a lost era, a lost legacy, a lost dream of the country that could have been. It's no stretch to say that a Robert F. Kennedy presidency, had he gone all the way, would have steered the nation on a different path than that of a continued quagmire in Vietnam or the national disgrace of Watergate. That the latter seems as quaint today as our Attorney General believes the Geneva Conventions to be--what with the Watergate hearings' bipartisan ethics, and even Nixon behaving more honorably than politicians today who shrug off corruption or blatant lying to start a war--shows just how different a world existed.

It's a world that unlikely writer-director Emilio Estevez captures with remarkable fidelity. Any era of upheaval is also an era of promise, and anyone who focuses on race riots and anti-war demonstrations misses the bigger, day-to-day feel of burgeoning science, technology, exploration and progressively more un-straitjacketed art and culture. We were going to the moon! And we had a government that declared a War on Poverty. However much it did or didn't work--and it did give us Medicaid, so there-- we had people with power trying hard to help those without.

This background is essential to understanding exactly what Bobby accomplishes. And that fact may be, ironically, the movie's commercial failing. Unless you can appreciate the film's genuine, you-are-there evocation--coming in large part from production designer Patti Podesta, costume designer Julie Weiss, and respective hair and makeup chiefs Bunny Parker and Brad Wilder, all perfectly resisting the temptation to "sixties it up"--then the swarm of interconnected stories about people at L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was shot just after midnight June 5, 1968, might seem mundane. But everyday life is mundance, and Estevez gives us a workaday world suddenly charged with excitement over the imminent presence of a possible next president--one to whom, moreover, much of the nation turned in hopes of his "fixing" what went tragically askew when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

You get the impression the cast felt this way, with its stars and character actors alike stretching themselves remarkably. William H. Macy plays Paul Ebbers, a hotel manager loosely based on real-life maître d'hôtel Karl Uecker. On a day that retired doorman emeritus John Casey (Anthony Hopkins) knowingly likens to the film Grand Hotel (1932), Ebbers ends an affair with hotel switchboard operator Angela (Heather Graham) and fires restaurant manager Timmons (Christian Slater) for his racist attitude toward the Mexican kitchen staff, including self-proclaimed "Latino" José (Freddy Rodriguez). Alcoholic lounge star Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore) abuses her manager husband (Estevez), her agent (David Krumholtz) and hotel hair stylist Miriam Ebbers (Sharon Stone). Campaign workers (Joshua Jackson, Nick Cannon and others), rich contributors (Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt), a philosophical chef (Lawrence Fishburne), a hippie drug dealer (an uncredited Ashton Kutcher), a young woman (Lindsay Lohan) marrying a friend (Elijah Wood) to keep him out of combat, and Casey's chess partner (Harry Belafonte) and others find their lives intertwining in the microcosm of the hotel. Christian Slater and a nearly unrecognizable Sharon Stone, in particular, do, without reservation, the best work of their lives, smashing past all the tabloid jokes about them.

It's not a docudrama--no one plays celebrity "bodyguards" George Plimpton or Rosey Grier, for instance, nor director John Frankenheimer, who drove RFK to the hotel. The assassination and everything around it are instead the nexus for a story of how close we came to a different American than today-- one in which we might not be arguing about just what degree of torture is acceptable.