Score: 4 stars **** out of 4 ****
Nearly 50 years in the making, the movie depicting what happened near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1969, finally sees the light of day and for those entrenched on the far right or left, it could be a major letdown. “Chappaquiddick” is potential primo red-meat to both sides of the aisle and to the credit of the filmmakers, it never delivers anything of the sort to either camp. It is a movie steeped in American political history that is decidedly apolitical in nature.
The first scene in the film includes still images of brothers John, Robert, and Joe Kennedy, Jr. accompanied with audio which bleeds into a family photo which zooms in then freezes on toddler Ted sitting on his father’s lap. It is a brilliantly executed passage and sets the tone for what’s to follow.
The youngest and arguably least talented Kennedy son, Ted (Jason Clarke) became the family torch bearer largely by default after Robert’s death in 1968 and from everything seen in this film he didn’t quite know how to handle it. A man born into vast wealth, power, and influence without the ability to recognize the responsibility or possessing the wherewithal to put it to good use is dangerous and this plays out in “Chappaquiddick” with the force of a Shakespearean comic-tragedy.
On the night of July 18, 1969, Ted, his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), family friend Paul Markam (Jim Gaffigan) and three other Democratic, blue-blood married men threw a party at the Kennedy beach cottage. Also present were six unmarried women all under 30 known collectively as the “Boiler Room Girls” who worked on Robert’s presidential campaign the previous year.
Around 11:00, a visibly tipsy Ted left the party in the company of boiler room member Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) for reasons left to our imagination. Confused and disoriented, Ted sped down an unlit dirt road, misjudged entry onto the Dike Bridge, causing his car to land upside down in a pond. Escaping without any apparent difficulty, Ted makes it to dry land and proceeds to walk back to the party. This event is presented multiple times later in the film with slight differences but it always ends the same.
Understanding the details of what went down that night is crucial as the only person who knew everything was Ted and when he called on Gargan and Markam, he made them de facto accessories after the fact. The point here is that the screenplay by rookie writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan contains details known to the public since the accident happened, information provided by at least one unreliable narrator. We can tell immediately that Ted regards his lineage and family name as an impenetrable suit of armor. He knows he’s committed an abhorrent act and is only sorry because he knows he’ll get caught.
Most people will agree that a crime becomes less important if it is followed with a cover-up and before Ted even made it back to the cottage, he was contemplating how to spin it. Unfortunately for him he thought about it too little or too much and, at least for a while, ruined his personal and political future.
As bad as all of this was, Ted had still had two things going for him. The Apollo 11 astronauts would be walking on the moon in two days, an event that ruled the news cycle and transfixed the planet. Secondly, he had a Deep State “dream team” of spin doctors at his disposal assembled lickety-split with little effort by a disapproving, wheelchair-bound, stroke-silenced but still powerful Joe, Sr. (Bruce Dern).
What took place in the mahogany and leather, smoke-filled room at the Kennedy compound in the days after the accident has never been made fully clear, yet the artistic license taken by the writers and director John Curran (“Stone,” “Tracks”) is totally lacking in sensationalism or hyperbole.
The two main “fixers” present were longtime Kennedy stalwarts Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) and Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) who with mere glances and stiff body language project an unmistakable understanding that they are dealing with a spoiled man-child who wants their help but won’t listen to their advice. After a while a flummoxed McNamara comments, “The Bay of Pigs was handled better than this.” This is just one of the golden morsels of gallows humor the writers dollop out throughout the second and third acts.
During the scene when Kopechne’s body is removed from the car, the filmmakers include a huge twist that is public record but known by only those already deeply familiar with story. This might change the minds of the many who gave Kennedy, if not actually but maybe metaphorically, a pass for his despicable behavior. Many of these folks live or lived in Massachusetts who, a mere 17 months later, re-elected Kennedy to the U.S. Senate with a whopping 62.2 percentage of votes and did so six more times.
Most people under the age of 40 (or perhaps even 50) have never even heard the word “Chappaquiddick” and if they are at all interested in U.S. history and finding out why that particular word is as potent and damning as “Watergate,” they might want to invest $10.00 and two hours of their time.
Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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