Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures & Apex Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: John Curran
Screenwriter: Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan
Cast: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Derm, Jim Gaffigan, Olivia Thirlby
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/27/18
Opens: April 6, 2018
If an ordinary Joe had a car accident resulting in the death of a passenger, you would probably not hear about it except in your neighborhood paper. If a well-known figure, a celebrity, simply slapped his partner in public, the incident would gain at least tabloid notice. The inference here is that you can get away with a lot if you’re an office worker, a drugstore clerk, a stock-room person, but if you are part of the one percent of folks who are well known in their fields, whether politics, the cinema or TV, you’d better watch how you act. Ah but on the other hand, if you’re one of the aforementioned big shots, you might get the attention of journalists and broadcast media, but your penalty, if any, will be far less than what the ordinary Joe must suffer.
The Kennedy family was made up of anything but ordinary people. JFK, the handsome, articulate and intelligent public figure, merited the most attention; his brother Robert, or Bobby, a man popular especially with minority groups for his interest in their cause, and ironically Joe, the patriarch, with close ties to the far-right Senator Joe McCarthy, was a vile anti-Semite who referred to Jews as a people who brought the Holocaust on themselves.
John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick” deals with Ted Kennedy, focusing wholly on the incident that we probably remember most about him—not the bills he pushed through the senate, not even his run for president in 1980, but with the accident that did not end his political career (he was re-elected to the senate by strong majorities but would not consider running for the highest office in 1972 and 1976.) The incident involved Kennedy’s hosting a party in Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard for the so-called Boiler Room Girls, who had worked on his brother Robert’s presidential campaign the year before. He left the party with one of the women, Mary Jo Kopechne, who had resolved to give up working on presidential campaigns but would continue pushing for local politicians in New Jersey.
When Kennedy and Kopechne tried to cross the Dike Bridge in his 1967 Oldsmobile, a small stretch that did not have a guard rail, he lost control of his car which crashed into the Poucha Pond inlet. Kennedy stated to the police that while he was able to extricate himself from the car, he dived into the water in a rescue attempt. He swam to the shore, leaving the young woman trapped in the car, and significantly did not report the accident until the next morning when the body had already been found.
The facts to this day are not altogether clear, and we cannot necessarily rely on the senator’s version of events. Given that the details are still being debated by wonkish types and others who like to discuss the more sensational aspects of the political game, we cannot necessarily trust director John Curran’s version either. But one thing is clear: the director has it “in” for the senator and likely for politicians in general. Having sat in the director’s chair for previous movies about a trek across 1700 miles of Western Australia (“Tracks”) and a cholera epidemic in a Chinese village (“The Painted Veil”), he gives no hint at the subject matter for this work.
Here’s the thing: we don’t know the truth about Chappaquiddick. Only Ted Kennedy did. But Curran, using Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s screenplay, thinks the worst. He shows Kennedy driving Ms. Kopechne at night, at a fast clip, one that appears to have frightened his passenger who does not dare to tell the man to slow down. We show Kennedy drinking whiskey from a bottle before the drive. Is this the way a man in one of the nation’s highest offices behaves, and what’s more a fellow who would be expected to have the genteel manners of old money? After his car skidded on the bridge and did almost a somersault into the water, we don’t know what happened, and Kennedy is shown later pretending to have looked and not found anyone inside the car. (She was.) And in a show of how corrupt American politics can become (though by current years we have nothing but saintly figures in high office), Kennedy allows himself to be advised, flattered, given spin by his intimate circle, one which includes especially his cousin Joe Gargan who has served as well as his lawyer and perhaps best friend.
He seems to regard Mary Jo at this point as little more than the person who would prevent him from ever becoming president. Narcissism is nothing new in politics. Paul Markham, the Attorney General of Kennedy’s state of Massachusetts, comes on strong telling him to report the incident, but Kennedy chooses to wait—presumably to allow his breath to clear of the alcohol that caused the accident. Had he reported the incident immediately, Kopechne would probably have been saved as she did not die from the impact of the car on water but drowned as water inched its way into the Oldsmobile. The senator should have been convicted of manslaughter at the very least. He should have been driven from office by an enraged senate and not found unqualified for dog catcher. But somehow, as we may have recently learned, the public will accept lies from politicians as long as they are liked and as long as they carry out the policies that the majorities desire.
Bruce Dern is excellent as the venomous father Joe Kennedy, in a wheelchair having suffered a major stroke which deprives him of the ability to speak except to say one word on the phone: “Alibi.” Dern looks like the creep as well with his proverbial round eyeglasses. Mary Jo is well played by Kate Mara, who is about to be convinced to play a major part in Ted Kennedy’s forthcoming campaigns. It’s clear from the director’s intention that Ted is about to hit on the woman, and note that Kennedy’s wife, in a later scene, sits apart from him in the back seat of a car looking hostile. Best of all, Jason Clarke as the senator looks the part with a toned-down New England accent which from time to time becomes re-attached to his voice, and he looks human. He worries that his father liked his brother Jack best of all and thought of Ted not in the way the senator thought he should be treated. He is vulnerable, he calls on his friends for help, and he’s scared. He’s nothing like the way we have come to think of the man as a knight in shining progressive armor, ready to take on the elements of right-wing reaction that threaten our democracy. And he repays his electorate for throwing his hat in the ring in the 1980 presidential campaign which, despite the Kennedy name, he loses in the primary to Jimmy Carter.
Rated PG-13. 107 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+