STARS: Jason Clarke, Ed Helms, Kate Mara, Bruce Dern
DIRECTOR: John Curran
GENRE: Historical Docudrama
Recalling my youthful impressions of what the Chappaquiddick incident was about: It's 1969 and Senator Ted Kennedy is driving home from a party late at night...possibly drunk...with a young worker from his late brother Bobby's campaign--Mary Jo Kopechne--when he runs off a bridge...the car is submerged...Kennedy escapes...she doesn't...he claims to have made valiant efforts to rescue her...he waits eight or so hours--pondering how to handle the situation--before reporting the incident to the authorities. He may have been boinking her.
As it turns out, my recollections were spot on according to the known facts as they are presented in Chappaquiddick. What remains unknown---and forever so--and the speculation surrounding it to this day is what keeps the film from being a boring documentary style retelling of old news.
But if you're looking for fresh insights to lead you to one conclusion or another as to what really occurred on that fateful night, you won't find them--save for a couple of brief scenes that suggest the senator and Mary Joe may have engaged in some hanky-panky earlier in the evening.
Chappaquiddick cuts Kennedy no slack, portraying him as shallow and more angst-ridden over the political ramifications to his possible presidential bid than he was over the snuffing out of a young life due to his negligence. Jason Clarke, as the senator, brings these qualities out in spades. Kate Mara, as Mary Jo, doesn't get enough screen time (as you might expect) to bring any depth to the character of Ms. Kopechne. Bruce Dern, in what has to be the strangest and most WTF role of his career, plays a grotesque, near mute papa Joseph Kennedy, whose guttural utterances demonstrate his disdain for his only surviving son in scenes that are played to their maximum dramatic potential. Ed Helms, as cousin Joe Gargan--one of the senator's "fixers"--gives the strongest performance of the ensemble crew.
Down the aisle from me, a coterie of older folks tittered away...derisively yukking it up virtually every time Teddy came on screen. In other words, the entire length of this brooding film--revealing themselves as being obviously from the "other side." Reveling gleefully again in the man's misfortune! There's plenty of grist for them here too. Some will even interpret Chappaquiddick as a straight up hit piece on the Kennedy clan, and by implication, the progressive ideology they embraced--the timing of its release no coincidence in this critical election year. Anyway, prepare to be annoyed by such boisterous folk in the theater, depending on the random luck of where you are seated.
If I were them, I'd have piped down and observed and taken a lesson from the master spin doctors who helped to resurrect Ted Kennedy's political career to where he was reelected to the U.S. senate continuously for another forty years until his death in 2009. Because when it comes to the art of the spin, their current heroes are tripping all over themselves.
As someone well acquainted with the environs of Cape Code and Martha's Vineyard, I felt Chappaquiddick portrayed both beach life and the world of the not-so-idle rich to perfection. Kudos to cinematographer Maryse Alberti. In watching the story of young Ted's self-serving neglect, I kept hoping none of the surviving Kennedys would watch this cinematic hatchet job on their uncle. We all make mistakes....Granted, not as horrific as this one was....
I think the screenplay took certain liberties. For example, it is widely known that Joseph Kennedy never spoke another word after his stroke. But the scene -- whether accurate or not -- where two of Ted's closest pals went diving in the water trying desperately to save Mary Jo while Ted lay prostrate on the dock was a definite shocker.
An odd bit of casting was comedian Jim Gaffigan as states attorney Paul F. Marham. A close friend of Teddy's, he willingly bent the truth for his drinking buddy. Be that as it may, I couldn't help watching Gaffigan in the role and recalling many of his comedy bits. ("hot pockets," etc.)
I wasn't the least bit bored by this rehashing of history. I did, however, wonder who Ann (Joseph Kennedy's caretaker) was. A relative? A nurse? Because she wielded quite a bit of power in this family drama, her relationship should have been explained.
Not a film for everyone, especially if you're a Kennedy worshipper. But Jason Clark's performance is worth the price of a ticket.