Chappaquiddick (2017)

Directed by John Curran

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 2.33.07 PM

Go read the youtube comments under the trailer for Chappaquiddick, it’s quite strange and eye-opening, not to the way things are but the disparate narratives people can pull from the same thing.  I didn’t view this as a movie about politics but rather about power, privilege and little else.  The top comments on youtube seem to view this as a very political movie, even an anti-Democratic movie, something between the truth and propaganda.  Again it depends on what you bring into a story like this, or stories in general.

I really liked this movie and didn’t expect to.  It seemed like one of those hastily-made true stories that would present a (no pun intended) watered down version of the real story.  But Chappaquiddick, while it does pull some punches, is pretty scathing in its depiction of Ted Kennedy and the powers that would protect him.  And I appreciate that, not because I’m anti Kennedy (I’m quite fascinated by the whole family, and I particularly liked Jackie and Bobby), but because the fact that Ted Kennedy, a seemingly beloved politician late in life, got a girl killed feels mostly forgotten and consequence-free.

The movie here has something to say.  It holds Kennedy accountable for what happened while also showing some of his inner turmoil.  It’s a fine line to walk because it at times makes him quite (appropriately) unlikeable, and other times he’s almost victimized by his father Joe (Bruce Dern).  It’s in these moments that Ted (Jason Clarke) pushes back against his father and his father’s ideas of power and respect.  He pushed his sons into politics, and as Ted points out, look at them now.  Ted is the only son he has left, and he feels the burden of that isolation.

This storyline will end with Joe telling Ted, “you will never be great.”  It’s a somewhat devastating line, more as an example of what drives Joe, no matter how old and far removed from grace he is.  Even in the end he is compelled by a very dangerous lust for power.

It’s also a moment that would seem to empathize with Ted before the final sequence builds on the image of Ted as a monster, one who alienates his cousin and closest friend (Ed Helms) thanks to his disregard for his mistakes and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).

The Ted Kennedy we see here is a frustrating character, and it pushes back against the way history remembers the long-tenured Senator.  The entire movie, in fact, charges the audience and people in general with enabling this man’s reckless behavior.  He is surrounded by people who are there only to protect him, and even his team, including Mary Jo’s good friend, puts Kennedy’s desires ahead of their own.  Ted Kennedy doesn’t prove to be a monster here so much as someone with little sense of true consequences.  He’s always been insulated from the world, and this has bred within him a certain narcissism to be sure and perhaps something bordering on psychopathy.

The movie will end with footage of people in 1969 asked how they feel about Kennedy’s accident, essentially demonstrating how good of a job his PR team did.  Many question the story his team put out there, but they admit that they would vote for him again.  They recognize the problem but choose to overlook it, and for people with such money this is almost always the case.

I’m not sure why else I liked this movie other than that certain moments jumped out to me, whether because they were funny or particularly tragic.  In one scene we watch Kennedy break the news about the accident to his friend saying, “I guess I’m not running for President,” a perplexing but revealing manner of recounting the event.  In another we watch Mary Jo say the lord’s prayer with what little air she has left in the sinking car.  Later on we watch Kennedy debate whether or not to wear a neck brace to the funeral, and he does against the wishes of everyone around him.  Before that is a scene in which the lawyers and publicists groan when Kennedy reveals new information that makes their job harder.

There are a lot of revealing, striking moments within this movie, and the tone, while perhaps a bit convoluted as it bounces between empathy and judgment, seems to capture the same contradictory thinking of how America remembers Ted Kennedy.

Up Next: Charade (1963), Mandy (2018), Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

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