Monday, April 16, 2018

Chappaquiddick



Tom Curran's Chappaquiddick reexamines the 1969 incident in which (it's believed) Massachusetts Senator and president-hopeful Ted Kennedy drives his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, MA, and escapes, leaving passenger & campaign specialist Mary Jo Kopechne to drown.  

The film takes place over a week, starting July 18th, the day of the notorious party on Chappaquiddick and crash.  It includes Mary Jo's funeral, several days of Kennedy, his father, and lawyers wrestling with the PR surrounding the story, and ends with Kennedy's statement to the public.  

The week coincides with Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, noted in the movie.  

Curran reveals a love affair with New England his movie, of which Kennedy-idealization is part and parcel.  To an average viewer, however, he fails to demonstrate how the accident and the demise of Ted's presidential career is a story worth retelling. 

A party on an island in Massachusetts, preceded by a regatta, and hosted by Massachusetts born-and-bred Ted Kennedy--you could not get much more New England than that.  

Curran presents this storyline with much relish, including a real-life photo of the entire Kennedy family at the movie's beginning, when Ted was just a baby, and another postcard shot of a swath of pristine-looking Kennedys surrounding the television set watching the accident unfold on the news. 

The film's awash in other reminders of the time and NE location, including prep-style attire—khakis, sweaters, 60s swimsuits--tea kettles, and one pricelessly idyllic scene in which Ted is on the beach flying a red kite in front of a clear blue sky. 

It doesn't take a soothsayer to predict that Curran is from the NorthEast, and sees in Ted an archetypal all-American guy behind his plethora of shortcoming.

About those shortcomings.  Curran spins the liaison between Mary Jo and Ted as purely platonic and professional. The night of the crash they slipped away from the party alone and were out discussing himself and some more about himself. Absolutely no funny business occurred.  Curran omits the fact that Mary Jo was found without her panties on.
  
Additionally, in presenting no alternative narrative, he accepts as fact Ted's “she's not feeling well” explanation for why his wife wasn't in attendance at the notorious party.  None of the wives of the six married men at the party showed up.  

It was instead attended by the Boiler Room Girls--six unmarried women younger than the men by over a decade. 

Curran's totally deluded in presenting Ted as a faithful husband whose only real fault is heavy drinking. 
Any idiot can see there's much more to the story. 

The Ted Kennedy Curran presents is a fundamentally self-absorbed and underdeveloped person.  The first words he speaks after Kopechne's death, to his lawyer friends Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), is that he won't be the next president.  The night of the accident Ted tells Mary Jo that his father would have no use for him unless he pursued a serious life; his ambitious career is really about daddy issues. 

The demise of the "big presidential contender" changing the course of history is a phenomenon that happens all. the. time.  Consider Scott Walker dropping out of the 2016 Republican bid after a crowded race and Trump's media domination.  Or Herman Cain's demise after the revelation of extra-marital affairs.  Or Michelle Bachman's notorious Newsweek cover that abetted her eventual decline in polls. 

Would we go to see a movie of any of these stories? Or would any of them even ever get made? Perhaps, since we do like to watch irrelevant trash, but other wise they don't bear a lot of merit. (Although a retelling of the Bachman incident would actually be interesting as a demonstration of how media controls elections). 

What Curran entirely left out of this movie, and what it really needed, was any sense of how Ted, in spite of his personal shortcomings, could improve the lives of Americans and serve as an effective leader. 

Consider that documentary Weiner—the creators include scenes of Weiner passionately discussing policy and interacting with voters, making the point that Weiner is a flawed but effective politician.  

All we see of Ted is a coddled hot-mess surrounded by a group of lawyers, family, and PR experts sweating blood to dig him out of his mistakes. What I mean to say is that it's implicit to the director that we're already sold on Ted being a worthy subject matter. But what about someone who isn't so enamored? --Apparently beyond the scope of Curran's imagination.

The movie has a good cast: it's so cool to see Jim Gaffigan acting and in a serious role (he does a good job), Kate Mara is as pretty as ever as Mary Jo, and Ed Helms is excellent as Ted's cousin Joe Gargan—probably the best performance in the movie. This is a a real period piece complete with 60s attire, with perhaps too much Hollywood polish. As for Ted himself--John Clarke is so dark and brooding. Wasn't really crazy about that performance. Bruce Dern as Ted's wheelchair-bound, conniving father was a memorable performance. And of course its awesome to see him in a movie.   

The dark subject matter is accentuated with dark colors, and heavy tonal music. Its obviously a dark story—the main focus of the darkness, however, is Ted's depression over his career, and confusion about who he wants to be and who he is--not the loss or death of a person.  And it's curious that a movie about a woman's death doesn't really pass the Bechtel test—the only lengthy conversation between two women takes place with Kopechne and another of the Boiler Room girls, in which they essentially discuss Mary Jo's opportunity to work for Ted on his presidential campaign.   

I suppose it's good to watch any historical movie, but I wonder who outside of New England was really moved by this story, and resonated with its idealism and loss.

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