**1/2 out of ****
(for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking)
Released: April 6, 2018
Runtime: 101 minutes
Directed by: John Curran
Starring: Jason Clarke, Ed Helms, Kate Mara, Clancy Brown, Olivia Thirlby, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, Taylor Nichols
When a film broaches someone’s greatest shame, particularly that of an iconic like a Kennedy, it’s going to reveal (or at least portray) one of two things: the guilt-ridden struggle behind a series of horrible decisions, or the cold calculation of the same.
Well, that Ted Kennedy was a real sonofabitch, and Mary Jo Kopechne is finally getting her #MeToo moment.
That’s the take of Chappaquiddick, the first film to dramatize the careless late night car accident off a rural Massachusetts bridge nearly fifty years ago, one that saw the young senator save himself from drowning while he left his helpless passenger for dead.
Given how Kennedy was able to skirt the scandal, going on to become the fourth longest serving senator in U.S. history as a champion of liberal / progressive politics – and garnering the revered title “The Lion of the Senate” in the process – it’s a bit shocking that this movie was even made, let alone with such unflinching candor.
It’s too bad the actual telling of it feels so conventional.
Polished and well-structured, with a strong central performance of disturbing, eerie pathology by Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), there’s nothing particularly wrong with John Curran’s film, especially as it’s anchored with a daring integrity, but as a study of smoke-filled backroom political machinations of the most cynical order, well, it’s fairly by-the-numbers, and Ted’s narcissistic psyche is all chalked up to daddy issues.
Chappaquiddick is essentially the film you’re expecting it to be, which makes it want for tension and surprise, and on-the-nose conversations articulate a self-aware hindsight of history like only scripted biopics can have.
What shocking turns there are come in just how stupid the desperate grabs at spin control can get, from Ted in particular, ones that wouldn’t stand a chance of being massaged in our social media age. As one handler of Kennedy’s team puts it, “The Bay of Pigs was a better run operation.”
This all might be a bit comical if not for what was being covered up. Consequently, Kennedy is heartless and everyone else is gutless. Even the sole voice of moral conviction Joe Gargan (Ed Helms, flexing his drama chops) becomes an all-to-easy patsy.
What few genuine tears Kennedy sheds are primarily for himself, and rare bursts of conscience are fleeting; nothing that a few hours and a new strategy can’t help to compromise and betray.
Curran’s movie is admirably scrupulous on all of these counts, never allowing Kennedy to become a sympathetic character, but this shallow, entitled Ted isn’t much of a compelling one either.
The most intriguing aspect of the whole thing is one that fate served up on a silver platter: these tragic events occurred literally as man was landing on the moon for the first time. In a twist that most wouldn’t even buy from Shakespeare, in front of a nation transfixed, no less, the greatest moment of the Kennedy legacy unfolded simultaneously with its worst.
As the credits roll, there’s a haunting dissonance to the eulogizing audio that’s heard from media coverage extolling the departed Ted Kennedy, especially considering that a scant ten years after Chappaquiddick the blue blood politico made a formidable run for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
It’s all sincere hagiography, but it’s given a chilling context after we’ve been inundated with one-hundred minutes of prime white privilege.