by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 6, 2018


Jason Clarke plays Sen. Ted Kennedy at a crossroads in his career: The tragic incident in which a car he was driving ended up in a pond and his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), drowned.

"Chappaquiddick" tells us with its title, and in no uncertain terms, that we're going to delve into the truth of that incident - or, at least, some version of the truth. What it finally delivers feels like a stage play on celluloid rather than a film, and a dithering hash rather than a strong and confident story.

The movie sets out the setting in short and well-organized strokes. Kennedy was on Martha's Vineyard to compete in a regatta. Relying on his right-hand man, cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) to see to the organizational details, he also threw a post-event party at a cabin. Among the guests were a secretarial pool -- "the boiler room girls," a group of hard-working, extremely loyal young women. Kopechne was also in attendance since Kennedy was trying to convince her to bring her experience working on a presidential campaign with his slain brother Robert to his own campaign - he was a hopeful for the 1972 election.

We'll never know exactly what happened that night, but the film, written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, posits that Kennedy and Kopechne slipped away from the other revelers, the better for Kennedy to make a heartfelt plea to the reluctant Kopechne to bring her talents to his campaign. On the drive back Kennedy, who we've seen drinking out of a bottle, seems to fall asleep at the wheel briefly; the car ends up stopped and a sheriff's deputy (who arguably should have investigated more thoroughly) calls out to ask if the occupants are having trouble. Wordlessly, Kennedy puts the vehicle in gear and resumes; turning to laugh with Kopechne (who has been increasingly alarmed at his poor driving), Kennedy fails to negotiate a sharp bend onto a narrow bridge, and the car plunges off and into the pond, landing upside down and quickly sinking.

The film having been willing to present a sequence of events it asks us to entertain as probable now abandons us with some pretty serious questions. Kennedy finds his way out of the car, but Kopechne doesn't; the doors and windows are shut tight, and even when Kennedy makes his way back to the cabin and brings cousin Joe and Massachusetts attorney general Paul Markham back to help, the other two men (who seem quite sober, not to mention adrenalized) plunge into the water and struggle to get inside the car, it's to no avail. Later on, as Kennedy recalls the tragedy in a statement, he simply says he doesn't remember how he escaped.

But what's the purpose of shying away from a plausible scenario here? Why dance around the question? A little later a medical examiner and an undertaker argue about whether the victim drowned or was suffocated, a distinction that makes a very big difference in how we interpret history. A police diver intervenes, to note that if he'd only been told about the crash soon after it had happened, he could have saved Kopechne: She died in a strenuous position, thrusting her face into an air pocket for any last gulp of breath. Such blithe, unsatisfying touches send more a shock of frustration than a frisson of suspicion, and if they are intended to light a slow-burning fuse of conspiracy-fueled ambiguity, all such sinister notions end up squelched by the film's own inability (or disinterest) in keeping that fuse lit.

"Chappaquiddick" prefers to focus on less forensic matters and zeroes in on the personal dynamics between Kennedy, Gargan, and the elderly, stroke-stricken Joe Kennedy, Sr. (played with wonderful intensity by Bruce Dern). Turning to his father for help, the younger Kennedy hears his ailing father croak one word over the phone: "Alibi." It's advice Kennedy half-heartedly tries to follow, but his conscience won't let him. Even so, his ambition - or his fear - won't allow him to go straight to the police and tell them what happened. By the time he's decided to give as straightforward an account as he can, he's managed to delay that course of action long enough for Joe Kennedy to round up a room full of hard-nosed political operatives, among them Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), whose tactical sense is sharper, and nose harder, than all the rest.

In his struggle between career ambition and self-sacrificial integrity, Kennedy finally comes down right between the two. If he's seeking to split the difference, all he's succeeded in doing is creating a rift between himself and Gargan - and, perhaps, splitting open a rift within himself. The film traces each beat of that journey, sometimes with the sort of clunky jostle that director John Curran might hope shakes us up, but the effect is closer to intermittently shaking us awake throughout a film that we might find tedious.

Whether it's a matter of misjudged delicacy at work, or whether we've simply become so overwhelmed with the unadulterated disregard of facts and principles by the habitus of the current political ecosystem, "Chappaquiddick" had a faintly "so what?" feel about it, with only a few of the interpersonal conflicts managing to spark. Here and there the movie takes on a near-farcical, "Fargo"-esque feel, with one poor choice following upon another. At one point Kennedy tells one of his guys to "leak" a story to the New York Times that prominently features both a concussion and physician-prescribed sedatives to treat it; oops! Another juncture finds a hapless small-town sheriff, played by John Fiore, besieged by reporters in a press conference he's at a loss to deal with; Fiore gives the sheriff a wonderfully beleaguered twist, but this isn't a comedy. The problem is, it's not much of a drama, either.

There are a couple of feisty scenes between Clarke and Dern, and Brown is always in his element when he's playing an intimidating character, but the film's central tension should emerge from the dynamic between Kennedy and Gargan. The scenes are there; the acting is there; and yet, somehow that tug just doesn't translate from screen to viewer.

What we might hope for from a film bold enough to call itself "Chappaquiddick" is a payoff equal to the promise of that charged name. We get a tingle here and there, but no real jolt from this effort.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.