“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” declared then-candidate Donald Trump in the middle of the 2016 Republican primaries. Perhaps he was well acquainted with the chapter in the life of Ted Kennedy, the legendary “lion of the Senate,” chronicled in John Curran’s Chappaquiddick – and how it ultimately failed to move the needle among his constituents. Despite lies, misrepresentations and cover-ups, Kennedy’s involvement in the death of a political aide now serves as little more than a footnote on his Wikipedia page.
Curran, with stone-faced intent and brutal focus, makes the case that such an incident cannot help but illuminate the true character of a man. People may not need to reconcile Kennedy’s deficient response to a tragedy of his own creation with his legacy of championing liberal causes. But Chappaquiddick provides a sobering, non-ideological reminder that if such deeds do not become a part of a public figure’s narrative, then a frightening impunity for elected officials can reign.
Ted Kennedy, embodied here by Jason Clarke, may not consider himself above the law, although he certainly assumes he can act outside it and face fewer consequences. In a decade where his family staked an almost dynastic claim on the American government, he fancies himself an heir apparent to the presidency like a monarch eyes their future throne. (Of course, the Kennedys unabashedly fashioned themselves as something akin to a royal family.) For a brief, shining moment, the family business was not politics. It was public service, a trade that placed them in the powerful position of bestowing their presence like a gift to others.
If Jackie and John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot” myth, so brilliantly evoked in last year’s Jackie, captured the pinnacle of American optimism in the early 1960s, Chappaquiddick captures the decade’s dissolution in the bitter discontent of the 1970s. Early in the film, Ted remarks in an interview that he’s always walking in the shadow of his late brother, unable to free himself from the burden of his older sibling’s legacy. Ted’s incident takes place quite literally against the backdrop of the weekend in which the greatest aspiration of President Kennedy – putting a man on the moon – came to fruition.
The assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy scarred the American psyche in profound ways, but they had a more direct impact for Ted. As the last remaining male descendant of his demanding father Joe (Bruce Dern), Ted gets thrust into a leadership role in the family enterprise for which he is ill-prepared and remarkably unsuited. He lacks the charisma and skill which came so naturally for his brothers, yet he needs copious amounts of both to escape the mess of Chappaquiddick.
While blowing off frustration and steam, Ted drives his car off a dock, killing passenger Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a former staffer for his brother, Bobby. His immediate physical response remains a mystery lost to time, though his first verbal reaction sums up the overarching concern in the fallout: “I’m not going to be president.” Rather than expressing any remorse or respect for the deceased, Ted filters everything through the lens of his own political future. Chappaquiddick takes place primarily in back rooms of resplendent Massachusetts waterfront homes where rich old white men plot a public relations campaign to protect a criminal from receiving justice.
Curran’s filmmaking tends to freight the proceedings with tragic overtones. Practically everywhere, there’s a symbol carrying an overloaded weight – the moon, the water. And yet through it all, Jason Clarke’s performance runs counter to the strained elements of Chappaquiddick. Despite the monumental, life-altering events that occur in the film, Clarke maintains an even keel by committing to a pervasive numbness. Scenery chewing is nowhere to be found, despite the consequential events taking place. Once Ted’s assumed birthright disappears from his grasp, he simply floats through his own life like a disbelieving observer. Clarke, a perennial scene-stealer in films from Zero Dark Thirty to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as this year’s upcoming Mudbound, seizes the spotlight and quickly establishes his typical measured tone.
Biographical films typically do not choose to dwell on the worst period of a public figure’s life, and seldom do they linger in the unsavoriness of their subject to the extent Chappaquiddick does. Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s script portrays Ted Kennedy as an impulsive figure who often ignores the sage advice of his closest counsel, even nearing an abusive level with his relative Joe Gargan (a touchingly earnest Ed Helms). The film catches Kennedy in a vicious cycle. He’s perpetually disappointed in others, which leads him to perpetually disappoint everyone around him. The result is a disgusting miasma of spin and deception that evinces the Kennedy instinct to favor their created myths over the truth. By divorcing Ted Kennedy from his accomplishments, Chappaqudick forces a reckoning over the divide between his rhetoric and his actions.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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