There’s a good chance the upcoming biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney won’t be fair or balanced.
The film’s writer/director, Adam McKay, is an ardent leftist who injects his politics into his work. McKay even flirted with a “comedy” about a dementia-addled President Ronald Reagan.
The minds behind “Chappaquiddick” ditch the partisan approach like an inconvenient campaign promise. Their tale sticks to what we already know about the car accident that killed both Mary Jo Kopechne and Sen. Ted Kennedy’s presidential dreams.
That’s more than enough.
In fact, by eschewing rumors and half-truths, “Chappaquiddick” is even more chilling no matter your party affiliation.
Jason Clarke stars as Sen. Ted Kennedy, the last brother standing from the Massachusetts dynasty. Assassins took down both President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, leaving the younger sibling with the duty of carrying on the family legacy.
That burden haunts every frame of “Chappaquiddick,” lending sympathy to a figure who in many respects deserves nothing of the kind.
The truth never stood a chance.
Clarke’s Kennedy is tormented as the film opens, a seasoned Senator uneasy with the weight placed upon him. He’s still a pragmatist, one eager to recruit a former member of his late brother’s presidential campaign. Mary Jo (Kate Mara) is idealistic but hardly naive. She still finds something genuine in Kennedy’s approach to politics.
He offers to drive her home after a party with her fellow Boiler Room Girls. He doesn’t appear drunk but it’s late in the evening and he looks groggy. One wrong turn sends his car sailing into its waters of Poucha Pond.
He escapes the submerged car. She’s still trapped inside. He tries to free her to no avail.
What happens next is unforgiveable and expected for those who have followed the tragedy. He doesn’t immediately call the police. Instead, he summons two members of his inner circle -- Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and Joe Gargan (Ed Helms).
“You’ll report this … right?” they ask.
Together, they start the damage control ball rolling. It’s more like a boulder, what with the expansive wealth, privilege and connections the Kennedy clan possessed. The truth never stood a chance.
FAST FACT: Joe Gargan told an interviewer that Ted Kennedy initially planned to say Kopechne was the only person in the car at the time of the accident.
“Chappaquiddick” arrives with a juicy target on its back. Any film retelling this tragedy could veer down some dark roads. Ramp up the scandalous rumors tied to the accident (she was pregnant! they were lovers!) and you’re trafficking in Fake News.
“It’s Fox News: The Movie!”
Deliver a mustache-twirling Kennedy and the film becomes a hit piece unworthy of serious consideration.
Director John Curran (“The Painted Veil”) avoids those traps. Instead, the tone is serious, the period flourishes subdued but arresting. It all starts with Clarke, who essays Ted’s mannerisms without falling into caricature.
He’s relatable at times, a man tasked with a burden few would want. He’s also haunted by his crippled father (Bruce Dern), a scold who doesn’t believe his son can keep the Kennedy name in good standing.
It’s a testament to Clarke that we feel any bond with Ted. We do all the same … for a while.
It’s a miracle that “Chappaquiddick” exists in the first place. It’s not the material’s fault. The tragedy is tailor-made for the big screen. Money! Fame! Power! Privilege! And a poor women whose life ultimately meant less than one politician’s aspirations.
Still, any movie recalling Kennedy’s actions following the crash can only stain the family legacy. Liberal Hollywood would rather make a dozen “Ice Age” sequels than do just that.
Yet the industry produced the film all the same. And a terrific one at that.
The movie slides into dark comedy mid-story. Ted is convinced he and he alone can fix the situation. Watching him scrap with the infamous Kennedy War Room, and get mocked in the process, is priceless.
Mara’s Mary Jo doesn’t get much screen time. She radiates all the same, a young woman who entered the dirty world of politicas for the right reasons.
The otherwise sharp screenplay has some clunky early moments. A soaked Ted emerges from the water following the accident and blurts out, “I’m not going to be president.” Those on-the-nose declarations happen a time or two, but mostly disappear in the second and third acts.
“Chappaquiddick” is a primer on how spin can trump all … then and now. The media obviously failed the public following the accident. Reporters were all too eager to buy the Kennedy-fed narrative and move on once the funeral arrangements were made.
The fact that key elements of the film will shock audiences suggests we needed “Chappaquiddick” now … more than ever.
HiT or Miss: “Chappaquiddick” isn’t just a necessary film for our politically charged times. It’s sober bluenprint should be emulated by future storytellers.
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