Chappaquiddick is a well-made film that may struggle for relevance against the backdrop of today’s White House freakshow. If it is remembered at all, it may well be for launching Australian actor Jason Clarke’s Hollywood career to new stellar heights.
I was 14 when the Chappaquiddick scandal broke. It was huge news because it involved a member of the famous but seemingly cursed Kennedy family, Ted, who had left the scene of a fatal car accident that claimed the life of one of his staffers, Mary Jo Kopechne. Ted had been gearing up for a tilt at the presidency that was now, suddenly, doomed. With Kennedy’s team moving into damage control, details about the case were not easily forthcoming, and crucial questions were left unanswered that everyone wondered about:
- 1. What was the nature of the relationship between Kennedy and Kopechne (ie: were they lovers?)?
2. Had Kennedy been driving the car when it careered over a bridge into water?
3. Was he drunk?
4. Was the reason he gave for leaving the scene and not alerting authorities of the accident for 24 hours – that he was concussed and confused – factual?
5. Since an autopsy had shown that Kopechne died from suffocation, not drowning, and had likely been alive for some time after the accident, why was Kennedy not charged with manslaughter?
Chappaquiddick the film is being promoted as “the untold true story.” That’s a mischievous claim in my view. None of the above questions are categorically answered; indeed, several are skirted around altogether (and fair enough – the truth resides with the now deceased Kennedy and Kopechne). For practical and dramatic reasons, the focus here is on Kennedy as a character, and what happened behind the scenes in his inner circle in the aftermath of the accident. Based on rigorous research, the depiction of the tactical maneuvering, cover-ups and spin is convincing enough, but we’re not talking documentary here. As well-executed as it is, this is a fictionalised account.
The takeaway from Chappaquiddick is Australian actor Jason Clarke’s formidable performance as Ted Kennedy. It’s not an easy role. Kennedy as he’s shown here is morally weak, and it’s hard to feel anything but contempt for him. Somehow, however, Clarke forces a humane response out of us, digging deep to channel the tortured core of a man wilting in the giant shadows of his assassinated American hero brothers, and torn between following in their footsteps according to the dictates of his aged, disabled but still tyrannical father Joe (a terrific Bruce Dern) and negotiating his own more modest life path. You don’t forgive him his trespasses, but at least you come to understand them.
Chappaquiddick is a well-made movie, but it’s hard to see it finding much of an audience. For those of my generation, it’s a letdown in failing to answer the questions left hanging 50 years ago, and I wonder whether succeeding generations will give a damn either way. Shit, why should any of us care about a scandal from way back then when there’s a freakshow in the White House running a lie and corruption fest in real-time?
Movie Website: http://chappaquiddickmovie.com/
Australian release date: Chappaquiddick in Australian cinemas from May 10, 2018
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