Film Review – Chappaquiddick (2018)

A prudent man must always follow in the footsteps of great men
and imitate those who have been outstanding. If his own prowess fails
to compare with theirs, at least it has an air of greatness about it…
…a prince who wants to maintain his rule is often forced not to be good.
Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince)

Directed by: John Curran
Music by: Garth Stevenson
Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Bruce Dern
MPAA rating: PG-13
My Rating: 9 of 10

Media blackouts still retain a certain amount of effectiveness today and it was the reason I was not made aware of the upcoming film Chappaquiddick until the film was getting ready to be released in theaters.  After seeing the film it is obvious to understand why the elites quashed production of a film on this incident for over 40 years and why so many establishment-type media outlets now give this film mostly stony silence in response to its release.  It is a masterful film on political mendacity and manipulation; one worthy of standing with the other classics on these topics such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Snowden (2016).

The film covers the tragic affair on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 where the negligence of the late Senator Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy resulted in the death of female staffer Mary Jo Kopechne and the ensuing aftermath where Kennedy and his allies seek to salvage his political career at the cost of justice for Kopechne.  Jason Clarke (Terminator Genisys) stars as Kennedy, a man living in the shadow of his famous brothers, under pressure to keep the Kennedy dynasty alive and one just discovering a talent for skillful manipulation through public perception and mendacity.  Kate Mara (House of Cards) is the ill-fated Miss Kopechne, an idealistic woman still recovering emotionally from the death of her idol, Robert Kennedy, and of a naturally quiet and perceptive disposition.  Ed Helms (The Office) portrays Joe Gargan, a close relation, friend and confidant of the Kennedy brothers who acts almost as Ted Kennedy’s conscience, always urging him to do the “right” thing as the tragedy unfolds.  Comedian Jim Gaffigan plays Paul Markham, a U.S. Attorney and another close friend of the Kennedys who is also present on Chappaquiddick on the night of the tragedy.  While he at first backs up Gargan in his attempts to get Kennedy to do the “right” thing, he eventually goes along with the unethical and dishonest efforts to salvage Kennedy’s political career.  The cast leaders are rounded out by longtime actor Bruce Dern (Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot) who is the elderly, dying patriarch of the Kennedy family, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.  Though no longer able to walk or clearly talk, Kennedy Sr. is still mentally sound, communicates through hand-written messages and makes it clear in the aftermath of Kopechne’s death how thoroughly ashamed he is of his youngest son.

The film’s greatest power is in a storytelling tactic known as ‘implication’ where the viewer can draw a conclusion from what is portrayed but not explicitly stated.  A tactic which has been used with great effectiveness by legendary film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra, the film industry has seemed to lose its touch in this tactic in recent years, resulting either in storylines which are far too vague or stories which are made too clear thus boring the viewer.  Chappaquiddick is unique in that it seems to recapture this lost element of film-making in a skillful use of both the facts as reported about the Chappaquiddick tragedy and the deductions which can be drawn from both the facts and the premise that those most closely connected to the tragedy (especially Kennedy) likely were not telling all that they knew.  For example, in the reports which emerged about the tragedy, it was stated in testimony and publicly that Kennedy and Kopechne were not romantically involved.  The film stays true to these facts, but both Clarke and Mara effectively portray their characters as two individuals who might very well be attracted to one another, implying that there may have been something more there.  The effectiveness of implications such as this deepens the film’s story and lends a mysteriousness to it which adds to its intrigue.

Clarke, Mara and Dern give Oscar-level acting performances of their respective characters and Helms’ performance is also well done in his limited camera time.  Clarke effectively brings across Ted Kennedy as a man torn apart by internal conflicts, plagued by numerous, significant mistakes and haunted by his conscience, the family legacy and the pressure of his Washington cabal who do not wish to lose him as their meal ticket to power and wealth.  He also portrays, in very smooth actions, a man oscillating between a sympathetic individual and an overconfident know-it-all who inspires disgust.  These multiple views of Kennedy’s character gives a depth to him which helps the audience understand that this is a multi-sided man, both vulnerable and very dangerous.  Mara inspires admiration and sympathy as the quiet, perceptive Mary Jo Kopechne, still inwardly grieving over the death of her idol, unsure of what her future holds and perceiving something in Ted Kennedy which makes her take his offer of employment more seriously than she might have for anyone else.  Dern’s performance as Kennedy Sr. is the most outstanding as he effectively brings across his character’s anger and frustration with his youngest son with mere looks, body language and one distinct gesture instead of verbal communication.  To bring this across to the viewer so effectively in a non-verbal manner is a masterpiece of acting and makes this easily one of Dern’s best performances in his long career.  Helms tugs at the audience’s heartstrings as the ethical upstanding man trying to encourage his famous family member to do the right things as each scenario unfolds.  The supporting actors also do well portraying their respective characters and making the scenarios feel real, especially Gaffigan in an uncharacteristically serious role for him.

The film has few weaknesses other than that it is forced to make some assumptions about parts of the story where no clear record was left of what happened.  Such as the hour between when Kennedy and Kopechne left the party and the time when the accident occurred, what Kennedy was really doing for much of the almost ten hours between when the accident happened and when he reported the accident and what Kopechne might have been doing (besides struggling for breath) in her final hours trapped in the car.  The assumptions take some liberties but they are believable and definitely possible when taking the background and inclinations of the characters themselves into consideration.  The film’s only other significant weakness is a few instances of verbal obscenities and profanities coming from the characters, but the scenes where this bad language is used are believable settings considering the situations and the backgrounds of the individuals who use them.

While Chappaquiddick is certainly not a film for young children, it should definitely be seen by older teenagers, college students, young adults and especially by anyone looking to become involved in politics.  A sobering and eye-opening expose about the dangers of allowing political ambitions to take precedence over responsibility and natural law, it unveils the swiftness of one’s degeneration when they start down that dark path.  Chappaquiddick reveals, that by successfully tapping into an undiscovered talent for manipulating public perception, Ted Kennedy set himself on such a path; a path which would climax in July 1987 with his infamous, slanderous speech against a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States.

© 2018 Grant Dahl & On This Terrestrial Ball. All rights reserved. This material may not be re-published, re-broadcast, re-written or re-distributed without permission from the author of this piece.