Tuesday, July 10, 2018

"Chappaquiddick": review

[NB: spoilers ahead.]

Two days before the moon landing that gripped the nation on July 20, 1969, Senator Edward Kennedy, most likely having had a few too many, drove off a small bridge and into a pond at Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. The car flipped over and sank upside-down into the water. Kennedy somehow managed to escape the wreck, but his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, remained trapped inside the car, which filled with water. Kennedy later claimed to have tried to help Miss Kopechne before giving up, leaving the scene of the accident, and retreating to his hotel. He failed to report the accident for about eight or ten hours, but when he finally did, he confessed he had been at the wheel. At some point during that crucial span of time, and probably very early on, Miss Kopechne drowned. For people of a certain age, the very name "Chappaquiddick" is synonymous with this incident and, depending on one's political affiliation, such people see Kennedy as either having suffered enough for what he had done or having never experienced the full justice that should have been meted out to him (Kennedy was sentenced to two months in jail, with the sentence being suspended). For his part, Kennedy seemed to have been affected enough by the incident to cancel any bid to run for president in both 1972 and 1976. As you doubtless know, Kennedy went on to serve several more decades as a senator before dying of brain cancer in 2009.

It's been nine years since Senator Kennedy's death, and now there's a movie about this incident. 2018's* "Chappaquiddick" is directed by John Curran ("We Don't Live Here Anymore") and stars Aussie actor Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy. Also starring are Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne, Bruce Dern as ailing patriarch Joe Kennedy, Ed Helms (of "The Hangover" fame) as cousin and lawyer Joe Gargan, comedian Jim Gaffigan as US District Attorney for Massachusetts Paul Markham, and Clancy Brown (best known for "Highlander" and "Starship Troopers") as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The movie, with its short running time of 101 minutes, covers the Chappaquiddick incident itself as well as the immediate aftermath, with pre-ending-credits title cards explaining future events.

By the time the incident blew up and and then blew over, the American public had been made aware, in bits and pieces through the media, of the salient points. What "Chappaquiddick," the movie, does is flesh out some of the details while leaving certain important questions unanswered. The portrayal of Ted Kennedy comes across as both critical and sympathetic, and in my opinion, the movie ultimately refuses to take sides. If the story gives us a clear bad guy, that would have to be Dern's old Joe Kennedy, wheelchair-bound, barely able to speak, and angry about how Ted is tarnishing the family's name and legacy. When Ted first calls his father at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port and spills his guts, old Joe merely croaks in response, "Alibi." Ted takes the manful route, however, and tells the police he had been driving, although he is seen speculating aloud about whether to say that Mary Jo had been at the wheel (a lie that would have dissolved the moment the body got pulled from the water). Later on, when Ted is face to face with his father, old Joe slaps his son and manages to gasp that Ted will never be a great man like his now-dead brothers. Old Joe's selfish focus on the family legacy, and his utter unconcern for the Kopechne family, gives him a malign cast while also removing part of the onus of guilt from Ted's shoulders: it must have been hard, the movie contends, to have been the son of such a man.

But the movie also shows that Kennedy made a string of poor moral choices—that despite his rhetoric during a party that the Kennedy family has a "true compass"** as its moral guide, Ted, at least, was morally adrift and unsure what to do. We see evidence of how at sea Ted is during an early moment in the film, when Kennedy is captaining a sailboat in a regatta. The man proves to be a poor captain with no intuition of how to pilot his ship; as metaphors go, this one is fairly heavy-handed but somehow apropos. We see further evidence of Ted's lack of a moral compass when he first leaves the scene of the accident. Later on, when Ted is strategizing with his family's people, we watch how various lawyers and PR agents react with shock and dismay to Ted's poor decision-making. Ted fumbles as he blindly throws out possible strategies for handling the press, and he causes howls of dismay when he lets his staff know he has released a statement to the local Edgartown police that has already been read aloud to the press—three times. We watch as Ted thinks a neck brace might be appropriate to wear to Mary Jo Kopechne's funeral (no one thinks the brace is a good idea), and in the film's final moments, we witness Ted's moral dilemma as he must choose between reading aloud an honest resignation speech written by his cousin Joe Gargan, or a more sympathy-garnering speech by lawyer Ted Sorensen (JFK's speechwriter). Ted opts for Sorensen's speech, and the rest is history: a montage of interviews shows that Democrats were mostly sympathetic to Kennedy (with the majority of interviewees saying "yes" to the question, "Would you vote for him again?"), making clear that, even with Mary Jo Kopechne's death so recent in public memory, the public already forgives the man.

Is "Chappaquiddick" a critical examination of this period of Kennedy's life? Is it attempting to use this terrible incident to say something more general about Ted Kennedy's well-intended but slippery moral character? Is it a cynical, Tom Wolfe-style commentary on how wealth and privilege (and a huge, distracting event like Neil Armstrong's moon landing) can shield a person from justice? Is it trying to give viewers an even-handed presentation of events, mixing facts and speculation? It's hard to say. I came away feeling the film was muddled about what it was trying to accomplish. This may, in itself, not be a bad thing: leaving events open to interpretation is sometimes the more mature road to take. That said, I still came away feeling as if something were missing. It wasn't the acting: Jason Clarke's Ted Kennedy is well portrayed, with a muted New England accent that stays well away from caricature. Bruce Dern exudes a sort of miasmic evil as old Joe Kennedy. Kate Mara, as Mary Jo, somehow manages to project both a wan soulfulness and a bit of a lost quality, as if she were at the center of events that would prove too large for her (as, in a sense, they did). Nor was it the cinematography: the film is beautifully shot, evoking the late Sixties without a lot of fanfare. The music wasn't particularly memorable, but that wasn't what was missing, either.

One morbid question I had, early in the film, was whether the camera would dwell on the process of young Miss Kopechne's drowning and, eventually, her corpse, once it was brought to the surface. The movie did, in fact, portray some of her final, frightened moments of life, but did so via an interesting narrative device: what I might call a "counterfactual flashback." By this, I mean that there was a scene in which Ted was back in his hotel, pondering what had just happened and what must still be happening. The "flashback" we see isn't a personal remembrance, but Ted's own speculation about what Mary Jo must have been going through right at that moment. We see the poor woman with her face pressed desperately into a shrinking air pocket as she recites the Hail Mary (Kopechne was, in fact, from a Catholic family). Later on, when the assistant coroner, the local police, and the diver are discussing her corpse—which is visible to the viewer—they note that saliva bubbles at the corners of Mary Jo's mouth seemed to indicate she had fought for life and didn't drown immediately. In other words, she suffered. As ghoulish as it sounds, I think Mary Jo's death, which is so central to this story, provides a kind of ground or anchor—given its brute factuality—that stands in contrast to Kennedy's moral drifting.

I've seen various reviews that dismiss "Chappaquiddick" as superficial fluff. For my part, I think the film has substance, but it does pull its punches, and it leaves us with no firm verdict on the incident or on Ted Kennedy. As I said earlier, this might not be a bad thing; in the end (and the film has a line to this effect has well), it is history itself that will judge Kennedy for his sins, including his sins of omission.

Only one huge mystery remains: how was Ted able to swim out of the overturned car while Mary Jo was unable to? The way the film shows it, the young woman wasn't pinned against a seat or anything; she was swimming freely inside the car, banging at windows in a desperate attempt to escape the vehicle's confines. If Ted had gone out an open window, why wouldn't Mary Jo have been able to follow? Did the car shift and roll slightly? What happened?

*This movie screened in 2017 at the Toronto Film Festival; its general release in American theaters was in April of 2018.

**The phrase "true compass" pops up several times in the movie and is also the title of Ted Kennedy's final book. Ponder the irony.


John Mac said...

Excellent review. Did the film note that Kennedy was not an evil Republican?

Kevin Kim said...


Come to think of it, I'm trying to remember whether the movie mentioned political parties at all. It may have, in an offhand way, but the whole party-versus-party issue was definitely not the focus of the film. I probably should have written more about that in the review, but the film's emphasis seemed to be more on the man himself, plus the fact that he came from a powerful, privileged family. Mary Jo ends up looking like a sacrificial lamb, which is another reason why I think the filmmakers might have been going for a Tom Wolfe-like cynical dramedy along the lines of The Bonfire of the Vanities (the novel, not the awful movie): in Wolfe's book, the entire story turns around the death of a young black boy (surnamed Lamb, appropriately enough) who dies after being struck by Wall Street broker Sherman McCoy's car.

Which brings up another thing I failed to talk about in the review: the weird tone. There were strangely comic moments sprinkled throughout the film, and I honestly didn't know how to take the humor, given how grim and awful the entire situation was.

John Mac said...

Interesting. I just wondered about the party thing because in the press if some county clerk screws up and he happens to be an (R) that seems to be prominently featured in the news account. Not so much in the other direction.

Ah, Bonfire is a book I actually read back in the day and it was of course outstanding. If I saw the movie I don't remember it, which I guess is its own kind of review...