Chappaquiddick (2017)

*. Political scandals tend to have a short shelf life. This is one of the understated points made in Chappaquiddick, when the story of the car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne is overshadowed by news coverage of the moon landing. It’s a point that was also brought home to me when this film was recommended to me by someone who confessed they didn’t know a thing about Chappaquiddick.
*. I found that a bit surprising, since I thought the name “Chappaquiddick,” much like Watergate, had entered into the lexicon. But then who remembers anything about Iran-Contra today? Or Gary Hart’s downfall? Or Monica Lewinsky? These stories survive today only in radically abbreviated forms, or memes. The Monkey Business. A semen stain on a dress.
*. Chappaquiddick has been forgotten even more completely though, because despite being so sensational a story it was of little political consequence. Ted Kennedy went on to a very long career as the “Lion of the Senate.” The scandal didn’t affect him much at all, though it probably put a ceiling on any political ambitions he might have had. As he says here immediately after the accident, it meant he was never going to be president.
*. As with any historical drama of recent events involving prominent public figures there’s a question of bias. Is this a whitewash? A puff piece? Or a hatchet job? In the featurette on the making of the film included with the DVD this issues gets addressed, though by falling back on the usual dodge about wanting to be truthful and the desire to present the individuals involved as being “complicated.” This if fair enough, but the feeling I was left with was that the movie’s Ted Kennedy really wasn’t that complicated.
*. This Kennedy, played by Jason Clarke, is a creature of pure privilege, with the deferent media and obsequious legal system just there to be manipulated at will. As such a fortunate son (I mean born to privilege, not fortunate in being the child of Bruce Dern as an immobile but still irascible Joseph P.), he is a permanent man-baby. Despite being in his late 40s and a U.S. senator he understands nothing of how the law works, and whines about how he doesn’t know who he is or what the truth is.
*. He also has the privileged habit of wanting to make himself into the victim in every situation, a type that has only become more common in our own day. Instead of remorse he only feels sorry for himself. You see this in something as subtle as the way he gets comfortable, adjusting his arms behind his head, as he’s lying back on the bridge after the accident, staring at the moon while blankly moaning “Oh my god, what have I done? What have I done?” This does not look remotely like someone who is upset about having just killed a friend. A flaw in Clarke’s performance, or insightful?
*. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for such a guy. Overall I think this is a negative portrayal, but it does at least stick fairly close to the rather damning facts (like the phoney business of Kennedy wearing a neck support at Kopechne’s funeral just as a way to elicit sympathy). There certainly were roads the movie could have gone down that would have cast him in an even darker light — especially with regard to his drinking and just what his relationship was with Kopechne — but in such cases the film adopts a pose of discretion.
*. To dilate on this just a bit: that this is a negative portrayal, however restrained, is remarkable. To compare just a handful of near contemporary American political biopics, I would say Kennedy comes off worse, or at least less sympathetically, here than George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s W., definitely worse than Gary Hart in The Front Runner, and even worse than Dick Cheney in Vice. Because Kennedy was a worse person? Because those other individuals were still alive?
*. I don’t think this is a great movie. My main problem with it is that it’s just too dull. The subject — how to manage a scandal — isn’t without interest, and was gone over again the next year in The Front Runner, but it lacks the intensity it needs here. I kept thinking of how it was gently nudging the edges of horror. Was Chappaquiddick in the mind of Peter Straub when writing Ghost Story, or Brian De Palma when making Raising Cain?
*. Perhaps if director John Curran had indulged this angle a bit more he would have had something. But as it is, it’s all pretty bland. Kate Mara (Kopechne), as so often, is wasted in a part anyone could have played. Clarke’s Kennedy is, in the end, an empty suit, retreating before our eyes in front of the camera. A disappearing act that will have to be damning enough.

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