Director: John Curran
Cast: Jason Clarke, Ed Helms, Paul Gaffigan, Kate Mara, Clancy Brown, Bruce Dern, Olivia Thirlby, John Fiore, Taylor Nichols, Andria Blackman
MPAA Rating: (for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking)
Running Time: 1:41
Release Date: 4/6/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 6, 2018
Screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan assume the worst about Ted Kennedy's actions and inaction on the night of July 18, 1969. The official story about a car, driven by Kennedy, that went off a bridge on Massachusetts' Chappaquiddick Island, killing a 28-year-old woman, only came from the United States Senator. No one else was a witness to the incident. This would be incredibly convenient for a guilty Kennedy, but it would be highly inconvenient for a man who just happened to misjudge the roads on a dark night and was suffering shock after the crash.
Chappaquiddick assumes a variety of things. Kennedy was drunk. He likely had untoward feelings toward his passenger. He left the scene of the accident while Mary Jo Kopechne was still alive, struggling inside the car to breathe for as long as she could in an air pocket that formed at the waterline. If he had just taken responsibility for his actions immediately, the woman would have survived. She didn't drown. She suffocated after the air ran out, while the Senator doddered around town, avoiding the consequences for as long as it took to come up with a convincing-enough story.
Whether or not one believes the movie's assumptions should be inconsequential. Fine movies have been made of even wilder historical conjecture, and to be fair, Allen and Logan's version of events makes enough sense. People unfamiliar with the incident will buy it, while those familiar with it will admit that, yes, this interpretation seems plausible. It won't change the minds of anyone who admired Kennedy for his politics. One assumes that those who hated the man for his party affiliation and political beliefs will wish the movie hadn't gone so easy on him.
This is the rub. The movie doesn't see Kennedy in quite the same way the character sees himself—as a victim of circumstance and a family curse, which has left him the only living son of a dynasty that never made much room for him. Allen and Logan, though, do envision him as an almost sympathetic figure. He's living in the shadow of his far more successful and respected elder brothers, all of whom died violently in service of their country—one in the military, one as President, and one while campaigning to be President. Nobody really believes that Ted (Jason Clarke) will match his brothers, least of all his father, who, even after suffering a stroke, finds ways to inform his youngest that this son will never be great.
Beyond the implications of the movie's recreation of the accident, the Ted of the movie can only be condemned as a fool. It's not just the harebrained schemes that he concocts and doubles back on in order to avoid the consequences of the accident. He's a fool in the larger picture of history—a man with a not-so-hidden desire to become President, whose dreams are dashed on the same weekend that his 6-years-dead brother Jack's dream of sending a man to the moon is being realized.
The moon is present quite a bit in director John Curran's compositions, as if providing a constant, mocking reminder of this Kennedy's folly. He has arrived at Chappaquiddick to celebrate his brother Robert's legacy, inviting his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), his U.S. Attorney friend Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), and Bobby's "Boiler Room Girls," including Mary Jo (Kate Mara). On this moonlit night, Ted takes Mary Jo for a drive and sends the car off a bridge. Ted escapes the wreck, returning to the house to call on Joe and Paul's help. The next morning, Mary Jo's body is recovered from the water.
The rest of the story follows the cover-up, which begins almost accidentally, as the local police chief (played by John Fiore) simply takes a hastily written statement from the famous Senator from an iconic family as gospel. The press catch wind, though, and Ted's father Joseph (Bruce Dern) assembles a crack team of political experts, including former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), at the Kennedy's Hyannis Port mansion to spin a tale that might save Ted's now-wavering political ambitions.
Clarke's performance, aided by some subtly effective makeup, is solid here, playing Ted as an indecisive man whose story and goals change with just the slightest influence. His reaction to any criticism of his own ideas like that of a child. He's a man of considerable privilege who doesn't even seem to recognize how easy he has it under the circumstances. Ted goes about the private and public maneuvering around the scandal as if his only worry is whether or not he'll be able to run for President in a few years. The legal side of this mess is covered, simply because of the Kennedy family's sphere of influence.
As a study of such monumental privilege, the movie works to a certain degree, but it's hindered by the screenplay's insistence on seeing the worst possible scenario of Ted's role in the accident and its immediate aftermath. The man here is guilty of much worse than the crime of which he's eventually convicted, but Chappaquiddick still treats this version Ted with a level of understanding that belies what the movie contends he did.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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