Thursday, April 19, 2018
Two summers ago I was startled by a blinding light shining into my bedroom window. For a moment I thought the mother ship had landed to reunite me with my alien ancestors. Unfortunately, it was merely a film crew taking over the beach behind my apartment. The crew was there to recreate a scene for Chappaquiddick, the story of Senator Edward Kennedy's tragic drive off a bridge that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a Kennedy aid who learned the hard way that there wasn't always an upside to being close to a Kennedy. Growing up in Massachusetts, I've heard horrible things about the Kennedy clan. The men, in particular, have been described to me as a bunch of privileged bullies. (Keep in mind, I also meet people who swear they knew someone who knocked out Rocky Marciano in an alley behind the Park Plaza, so I never know what to believe.) Whether or not the Kennedys are a bunch of villains, they've always seemed a bit unreal to me. Even J.F.K., whose picture was on the wall of my grandparents' living room, always looked like a figure created for an ad campaign, something like the Morton Salt girl or Alfred E. Newman. But after a lot of Kennedy documentaries, Larry Tye's excellent biography of Bobby, and the recent CNN series narrated by Martin Sheen, I felt ready for Chappaquiddick. The movie cost me a night of sleep, so I was curious.
Aussie actor Jason Clarke plays Ted as a bumbling sourpuss living in the long shadows of his three older brothers, all of whom died young. It's no wonder he's unhappy. The wheelchair bound family patriarch Joe (Bruce Dern) can't stand him. Unable to speak or move, old Joe is still able to slap Ted in the face and hiss, "You'll never be great!" Senator Ted, of course, may not be presidential material, but he occasionally blurts something about wanting to be a great man. In a way, he reminded me of Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, another clumsy oaf from a wealthy family who only wanted to impress his father. The movie ambles along at a funereal pace, with actors struggling to mimic the oddball Kennedy accent (they all sound like Katherine Hepburn trying to imitate Elmer Fudd) while director John Curran and cinematographer Maryse Alberti linger on the scenery of windswept Martha's Vineyard (played in the movie by towns farther up the map).
Chappaquiddick purports to be "the true story" of what happened on that disastrous July night in 1969, which is odd since no one really knows what happened, not even Ted. He claimed not to remember how he escaped the submerged car, or why he waited nine hours to call the police. But rather than explain how a drunk with a bad back was able to power his way through a car window and swim to safety, the movie focuses on Ted's neediness. With his brothers gone and his father hating him, Ted leans heavily on family fixer Joseph Gargan (well-played by Ed Helms), himself worn out by Kennedy scandals. Ultimately, Ted accepts the Chappaquiddick episode as his personal crown of thorns. "Peter betrayed Jesus," he says late in the movie, "and I have Chappaquiddick." He says this almost proudly, as if at long last he has acquired a character, albeit a shitty one.
Clarke is fine as a self-pitying Ted Kennedy, a man who could amuse himself by flying a kite or watching cartoons, yet was despicable enough to wear a neck brace to Kopechne's funeral in an effort to get sympathy. Still, Clarke's performance can't galvanize Chappaquiddick. If we're supposed to buy into Ted Kennedy as a tragically flawed Shakespearean character, which I think is Curran's ambition, we need some King Lear moments, not just Ted staring off into the clouds while his staff hustles to get his driver's license renewed. This, ultimately, is why Curran's movie never takes flight. It's watchable, but too restrained. Even the car accident is played tastefully, rather than for full out melodrama, as if Curran feared going too far. There's no hint of a cover up, and no suggestion that there was more to the story. Also, there is no attempt to explain the phenomenon that has always mystified me, which has to do with the Kennedys only marrying people who already looked like Kennedys.