Chappaquiddick – 2017
Director John Curran
Screenplay Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan
Starring Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Olivia Thirlby, Bruce Dern
Whenever one hears the phrase “The Lion of the Senate” regarding Ted Kennedy, it comes across more as derision than anything. It represents how hard it is to make real change in a place where the mechanics of politics leave people in positions far past their purpose. More than anything, Ted Kennedy was an example of a life that was predestined, and not necessarily one of his choosing.
Chappaquiddick starts with a portrait of the Kennedy family. One by one, we see an emphasis on each of the sons and how they died tragically in service to the country. Then we see a focus on the youngest boy, on the lap of his father. That big baby face gives way to an interview of the then 37-year-old Senator (Clarke) discussing his own legacy. Obviously troubled by the introspection, he pushes past the question.
Next thing we see, Kennedy is competing quite incompetently in the Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta, along with his cousin Joe Gargan (Helms) and Paul F. Markham (Gaffigan). When asked about sailing, Gargan says they learned the craft from Bobby. The interviewer posits that Bobby must have been pretty good at boating. Gargan sheepishly admits that no, he wasn’t.
Later that night, on the island of Chappaquiddick, events conspired to rob Mary Jo Kopechne of her life. When Ted Kennedy settled on the banks of the Poucha Pond, he had thoughts of what he lost at that moment:
“I’m not going to be president.”
The events that follow play close to impartial as possible. There are few attempts to play up things that cannot be proven, aside from conversations between Kennedy and his father. Even so, the filmmakers work on formulating a consensus view of the facts create an image of the young Kennedy that fits the bloated governmental bureaucracy that he came to represent in his later years. Any thoughts of justice were covered by many lawyers, who worked tirelessly to blind the public from the truth.
If one looks at these events with no historical knowledge of the events, it’s impossible to avoid the realization Kennedy represents a system rigged against the true believers and dissenters at once. This is not how he sees himself, to be sure. For him, it’s all a form of duty to represent a name that feels more like an obligation than a choice. So caught up in whether or not he’s living the life he wants, he neglects to consider the fact that his actions helped to lead to the death of someone who believed in him and his family.
Clarke is exceptional in his presentation of Kennedy. He looks exactly like the Ted Kennedy of the time. More importantly, his presence is a subdued combination of humility and privilege. There are moments of absurdity that make one want to wretch. One such moment is when he shows up to the funeral in an heretofore unnecessary neck brace.
The back and forth between Kennedy and his cousin / adopted brother Gargan represent the biggest difference between Kennedy as a man of conscience and the politician who is part of the machine. Helm’s nuanced performance shows the disillusionment of one of his closest friends and supporters. Even so, he’s a complicated protagonist. His attempts to save Kopechne are followed by decisions that boggle the mind. At the point he finally realizes the error of supporting his cousin, the viewer has more than enough evidence to make up their own minds, even if they don’t have the shared family history.
Perhaps the most damning performance of the quality of persons surrounding Kennedy is Gaffigan’s sweaty portrayal of lawyer friend Paul Markham. He hangs around, awaiting orders in between drinks. He looks like he smells of cigarettes and cheese. He does what he’s told and then looks delightfully puzzled when he discovers he shouldn’t have followed Kennedy’s orders.
The feelings that the film evokes are considerably less comic than are they tragic. Seeing the troops gather around the one person who least deserved support trying to figure out how to compartmentalize the grief of Kopechne’s parents gives one an enduringly sick sense of loss.
Curran and writers Allen and Logan have crafted a strong and clear portrayal of one of the dark moments of the lives of many people. Ultimately we see the true form of a man who saw himself as a victim of expectation as he thought nothing of those he victimized.
There is no doubt by the time Kennedy puts his political future in the hands of the people, the chance for prosecuting him had passed. He stayed in the Senate for another 40 years, until the time of his death. Clarke’s powerfully elusive performance leaves us with the question about how much her death weighed on his mind as time passed. One can only hope he found a way to face the truth before he faced final judgement.
(***** out of *****)