Sunday, July 8, 2018

Video review: "Chappaquiddick"

I wasn’t surprised that “Chappaquiddick” didn’t make more of a splash at the box office, despite being one of the best dramas of 2018 and a film that, if it weren’t for the bifurcated political reception it provoked, would surely be talked about as an early favorite for a raft of Oscar nominations.

The movie was picked up on by conservative media months before it got a general release, adding to the perception it’s the rare “right wing” Hollywood film. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This look at the events surrounding Edward Kennedy’s defining moment in 1969, in which he (mostly likely drunkenly) drove his mother’s car into a lake with a pretty young campaign worker inside, Mary Joe Kopechne, who died. Not only was unable to save her despite (he says) many attempts, he failed to report the accident until the next morning, sealing the woman’s fate. The evidence suggests she was trapped in the car for hours, and suffocated when her air ran out.

The film, directed by John Curran from a script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, does not set out to vilify Kennedy as a heartless fiend. In a masterful performance by Jason Clarke, it’s suggested that he was a man who wore heavily the mantle left behind by his dead brothers, Jack and Bobby, and the expectation that he would run against Richard Nixon for the presidency in 1972.

The true evil occurred in the aftermath, as an armada of loyal Kennedy men descended on the sleepy town to manipulate events with one goal in mind: saving Teddy’s political career. I can think of no better cinematic portrait of the axiom that power corrupts -- for those who have it, seek it or try to hold onto it.

Funnymen Jim Gaffigan and Ed Helms give surprisingly meaty performances as hangers-on of the Kennedy clan who engage in the cover-up. Helms’ character, adopted son Joe Gargan, is the lone voice who begins to have moral quandaries about their actions.

Bruce Dern is mesmerizing as Kennedy patriarch Joe, withered by age and moral rot, who directs the machinations from his repose. Kate Mara has a small but vital presence as Kopechne, who was not just some feminine plaything of male politicos, but a resourceful campaign player in her own right.

There’s a lot of anger, but also a lot of insight in “Chappaquiddick.” It’s a film brave enough to look back at a political scandal from half a century ago that likely altered the course of the presidency, to penetrate the fog of history and render a proper reckoning for a despicable deed.

Bonus features are scant, being limited to two documentary shorts: “A Reckoning: Revisiting Chappaquiddick” and “Bridge to the Past: Editing the Film.”



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