Chappaquiddick [Review by CLGJr]
By the summer of 1969, Edward Moore Kennedy was the sole heir to the political dynasty that patriarch Joseph, Sr. had built. He occupied the U.S. Senate seat once held by the 35th President and probably thought his remaining brother would become the 37th. Following Robert’s assassination the year before, young Teddy emerged as the last hope for a clan that had suffered unimaginable tragedy. But, as if on cue, the Kennedy curse descended upon a small island off Martha’s Vineyard, claiming the life of Mary Jo Kopechne and nearly ending Ted’s career. We all know the location, and we all know the story. Although “Chappaquiddick” would have us believe we don’t, the film gives that fateful night and its aftermath the Lifetime treatment. It is a pedestrian, miscast, and ultimately tedious melodrama.
With the helpful pretext of an annual regatta, Ted (Jason Clarke, mostly looking the part) joins consigliere cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), U.S. Attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), and a gaggle of former RFK campaign aides known as the “Boiler Room Girls” for a weekend getaway. (No wives allowed!) The assorted guests aren’t playing board games or discussing the upcoming moon landing. Curls of cigarette smoke and crushed beer cans suggest a less family-friendly affair. On Friday evening, Ted tries to coax Robert’s former secretary Mary Jo (Kate Mara) into joining his own nascent campaign. He has none of the preternatural charm or confidence of his older brothers, and it shows. The weight of unfairly great expectations sits heavy on Ted’s already broken back. In a fog of despair and booze, he drives Mary Jo off a narrow bridge, somehow escaping death when she could not.
The remainder of the film traces Ted’s bungled attempts at protecting himself and the family brand. Everyone around him, until Gargan eventually grows the semblance of a spine, also cares only about the survivor. Ted can’t express any remorse, whimpering “I’m not going to be president” after staggering back from the wreckage. One of Mary Jo’s close friends has no time to shed tears for the deceased either. Her only concern is protecting the Kennedy scion. The Senator waffles between outright lies and truthful integrity before his father (played with unintentional hilarity by Bruce Dern) calls in an all-star cleanup crew.
The screenwriting team apparently thought that a second-rate “House of Cards” episode would adequately convey the gravity of the following week. (Why does Kate Mara have to die at the hands of more than one aspiring Commander-in-Chief?) Wordsmith Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols) and former Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara (Clancy Brown, imperious as always) preside over a smoke-filled room filled with tut-tutting white-haired men and assorted sycophants. Their grasp of the reins causes Ted to regress into a snot-nosed brat. (In one ridiculous scene, he literally stomps away and pouts when they veto his plan to wear a fake neck brace to Mary Jo’s funeral.) The movie holds up the Lion of the Senate as someone who coulda been a contendah. Too bad he was just a simpleton who desperately craved Daddy’s approval. Ted’s single genuine flash of humanity appears at an inn, hours after the crash. Horror, grief, and panic convincingly overcome him. If only director John Curran had focused more on the artistry that suffuses the cross-cutting views of Ted’s cleansing bath and Mary Jo’s drowning. Instead, Instead, “Chappaquiddick” devolves into a conventional morality tale, one that falls infuriatingly flat.
A story of this renown arguably deserves more. Neither Clarke nor Helms credibly sticks the landing on his Boston accent. Gaffigan, one of his generation’s most consistently uproarious standups, barely registers. The absurdity of Dern as Joseph, Sr. starts with a villainous croak of “Alibi!” over the phone and ends with rigor mortis usually reserved for sketch comedy. “Chappaquiddick” also has no consistent perspective. It fails to depict or even opine on who Ted truly is. Sure, the character at one point explicitly claims not to know either. But a biopic should offer its own hypothesis rather than merely stage a series of tabloid-level reenactments. Perhaps worst of all, just as Ted’s handlers quickly abandon Mary Jo’s memory, the film commits the same error of omission. More than the off-key performances and uninspired script, “Chappaquiddick” falls glaringly short by sidelining the one story most of us don’t—and probably should—know: hers.
CLGJr Verdict: A befuddling interpretation of a family legacy and the infamous scandal that almost destroyed it. Reserved for only the most diehard political junkies, and barely so. With such a decided lack of narrative vision, it’s clear that Ted wasn’t the only one nearly asleep at the wheel.
Chappaquiddick opens on Friday, April 7.
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