Thursday, April 5, 2018
“Chappaquiddick” is a mesmerizing portrait of evil -- not an evil man, but a deed that remains one of the most black-hearted acts in American political history.
I refer not to the abject cowardice of Edward "Teddy" Kennedy in the summer of 1969, when the Senator from Massachusetts drunkenly drove a car off a bridge into a lake, leaving a campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne, trapped inside.
Nor to the fact that Kennedy failed to summon help, walking past houses 150 yards away to instead trudge back to the summer cottage he had just left to call his friends, all married men who were partying with single women like Kopechne. Rather than phoning the police, they scrambled to protect Kennedy’s reputation.
Nor do I even refer to Kennedy returning to his hotel room, where he slept, ate breakfast with friends and failed to report the accident for nearly nine hours. His inaction most certainly doomed Kopechne, who likely survived for hours trapped in the car, succumbing not to drowning, but suffocation as she used up the small pocket of breathable air.
The real evil, the film argues, lies in what came after.
This is an angry movie, but also a probing one. Director John Curran and screenwriters Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen look at how the Kennedy family machine of advisors and lawyers sprang into action to protect a man seen by many as the frontrunner for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination.
Arms were twisted, wheels were greased, outright fabrications passed off as accepted fact.
At the center of this storm was Kennedy himself, a flawed man and last surviving son of a political dynasty consecrated with the highest of blessings and laden with the darkest of curses. Played by Jason Clarke in a riveting performance that should be remembered during the next awards cycle, Kennedy is portrayed as someone torn by tidal forces of pride, shame, entitlement and weakness.
“I’m not going to be president,” is the first thing he says after the accident. Kopechne, still struggling for air in a submerged Oldsmobile, had already been consigned to death. Kennedy’s only thought was that his political ambitions not join in her obituary.
While the movie chastens him for going along with the elaborate plot to save his career, it does not condemn Kennedy as an irredeemable fiend. Rather, it asks uncomfortable questions about who among us would have followed a similar path, given the titanic expectations for the baby brother of Jack and Bobby Kennedy.
Ted Kennedy was unwillingly anointed as the keeper of the flame for an entire generation of dreamers -- and wanted desperately not to see that torch sputter out on his watch.
Kate Mara plays Kopechne, depicted as an earnest young woman a member of the “Boiler Room Girls,” a group of secretaries and strategists who gave their souls to Bobby’s presidential campaign, and were being urged to sign on for another one. The film, while slinging many barbed arrows, does not dispute the insistence that the party was a chaste one, though there is some suggestion of longing between her and Kennedy, a lifelong philanderer.
Ed Helms is terrific as Joe Gargan, adopted son of the Kennedy clan, the friend who’s always there to clean up their messes. At first Teddy’s most ardent defender, he eventually grows sick of the lies and manipulation. He finally snaps when Kennedy, who was completely uninjured in the accident, dons a neck brace for Kopechne’s funeral. “You’re not a victim, Ted!” he bellows.
Bruce Dern is unrecognizable and piercing as Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of the clan, now grown decrepit in body to match the withered soul. Face twisted into a rictus, barely able to speak or move, he treats Ted as the prodigal son he’d rather not see returned.
When Ted first calls to report his predicament, the elder Kennedy can only croak out one word: “Alibi.”
Other notable cast members include Jim Gaffigan as Paul Markham, Kennedy pal and obedient fixer; Clancy Brown as Robert McNamara, the former Defense Secretary who leads the heavy hitters during the cover-up; Taylor Nichols as Ted Sorensen, speechwriter and PR expert; and John Fiore as the pliable local police chief.
“Chappaquiddick” is a powerful and bracing look at how power corrupts -- not just its exercise, but in its pursuit.