As I wrote a few days ago, I had minimal expectations of Chappaquiddick The Movie, which opened last week despite the best efforts of the Kennedy family and their various retainers and enablers. I have always been revolted by the fact that Ted, after killing Mary Jo Kopechne, did not have the decency to do a John Profumo and retire from public life for the rest of his days - and I was even more revolted by the way Massachusetts voters did not have the decency to impose that choice upon him.
But utter contempt for your protagonist doesn't make for very interesting drama. So it is to the film's benefit that its director, writers and Jason Clarke in the lead role manage to locate enough humanity in the empty waddling husk of Teddy to make a compelling story. Mr Clarke is Australian, his director John Curran is American but has spent much of his career Down Under, and the screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan are two first-timers born a decade after Chappaquiddick and who'd apparently never heard the word until 2008. That combination of outsiders and neophytes may be one reason why this film is considerably more gripping and potent than a cookie-cutter limousine-liberal yawnfest like The Post.
In the shorthand of history, Chappaquiddick is a stand-alone event, but it occurred, in fact, on the July weekend in 1969 that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon - and it arose from a reunion of the "Boiler Room Girls", the devoted young ladies who'd worked on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign of the previous year. So Teddy, the youngest Senate Majority Whip in history, is nevertheless staggering in the shadow of both his dazzling brother's recent assassination and the fulfillment of his other assassinated brother's most audacious challenge. He is there, ostensibly, to compete in the Edgartown Yacht Club's annual regatta, in the family sailboat Victura, which his other dead brother, Joe Jr, killed in the war, first sailed over thirty years earlier. One feels entirely confident that, if the Kennedy patriarch - old Joe, stroke-afflicted but still running the show - had expressed a preference over which of his four sons would be the only one to survive, Teddy would have been last on the list. We meet him early on, in his room at the Shiretown Inn, climbing into his swim trunks and checking himself in the mirror before heading for the beach and the girls. Pushing forty, he still seems to have his puppy fat, a soft and doughy middle-aged child.
There is, as it happens, another brother - or "brother": Kennedy cousin Joe Gargan, who lost his parents at a young age and was raised by Teddy's parents as (almost) one of their own. As played by Ed Helms, Joe is the conscience of the picture: he doesn't exactly do the right thing, but he's broadly in favor of others doing the right thing, which, in the moral universe of the Kennedys, gives him a sporting chance of winding up a couple of circles of hell further out from where the rest of them are headed. He's officially Ted's lawyer but more importantly his fixer. So we see him in the payphone outside the Shiretown Inn, on the line to the Senator in Washington, reassuring him that the bedroom for "the girl" has been taken care of.
Phone booths are a kind of motif of the picture and its milieu: 1969 is the pre-cellular age, and too many nosy desk clerks like to listen in on the room lines. Ted isn't good at a lot of things (he flubs the sailboat race after steering the Victura into a buoy) but he knows where the payphones are, and he knows how to work them. The Senator is married, of course, but it's understood by all that Joan Kennedy never comes to regatta weekend. When her husband gets into trouble, she's prevailed upon to show up, because it's part of the deal. But she's a prop, and in this film almost a non-speaking part: She has just one line, three words delivered to Ted when he climbs into the car and thanks her for coming. She responds by suggesting he, er, do to himself what he's done to her and almost every other woman he's used and discarded over the years.
Jason Clarke's is not exactly a sympathetic portrait, but it is rounded: his Teddy is self-absorbed and self-loathing, both aware of his weakness and cowardice, and yet unable to overcome the Kennedy family's sense of its own indispensability. You get a sense of the peculiarly isolating quality of American politics at its upper echelons, so different from the unglamorous parliamentary life of other countries. This Ted is a lonely man who's never alone, buffed and polished by a round-the-clock retinue. He's a brand, assumed to be a shoo-in for the '72 presidential nomination, though he himself seems to have no particular enthusiasm for it, and, by comparison to their love for Bobby, even the girls' encouragement seems pro forma and dutiful. His wheelchair-bound speech-afflicted father, in a gothic performance by Bruce Dern, manages to loose off one complete sentence in the picture, albeit a word longer than Joan Kennedy's: "You'll. Never. Be. Great." Forced through his slack, hanging lips to his last son, there must surely be, for a Kennedy scion, no more damning indictment.
But what if Ted doesn't want to be great? What if he'd just like twenty minutes away from it all sitting on the hood of his Olds parked on the edge of a deserted beach with a girl who seems to feel a connection to him.
Ah, but even then the talk is only of politics and destiny...
What happened is well known: The party to thank the Boiler Room Girls of his late brother's campaign is well lubricated. He leaves with a blonde, and then, instead of turning left for the ferry to Edgartown, he swings right onto a dirt road leading to a deserted beach. At a wooden bridge with no guard rails Teddy makes his own personal moon shot: the car sails through the air and lands upside down in a dark tidal pond. The guy gets out and makes it to the surface. He leaves the girl down there. All this has been the subject of innumerable books and magazine articles and newspaper columns, but it is shocking to see it, in prosaic, unsparing, heartless detail. The sodden Senator walks all the way back to the party, past houses with lights burning, full of people who could have called for help, who themselves could have helped. Instead, he totters on to his fixers, and tells them, self-pityingly, "I'm never going to be president."
Mary Jo Kopechne is something of a cipher in her own story: She led a short, varied life, but, as played by Kate Mara, she's mainly there to look the part, "the girl". John Curran, directing with unflashy efficiency, nevertheless conjures the horror of her final hours: We see Mary Jo in the car at the bottom of the pond, then Ted back in the inn soaking in the tub; Mary Jo pressed up against the shrinking air pocket, Ted adjusting his tie and combing his hair; Mary Jo sobbing and gasping out her last "Hail, Mary" at the hour of her death, Ted heading down to breakfast with supporters in the hotel dining room - until he's interrupted by Joe Gargan, aghast to discover it's the morning after and that Kennedy still hasn't reported the accident. And yet Joe too slips reflexively into damage-control mode.
The normal reaction is that of the Chappaquiddick fisherman and his son rounding the bend. The kid is first to spot the upturned Oldsmobile: "Dad!" And the guy tells him to run, run to the nearest house, and the boy pounds the dusty road as fast as he can. But that's why he's a fisherman, not a fixer man. Even before the body's brought up, Mary Jo is fading from the drama: She's no longer a flesh-and-blood human being, no longer "the girl"; she's just a problem, to be fixed - permanently. Ted returns to Hyannis Port for what he assumes will be a spot of afternoon tea with his dad, but, when the nurse motions him into the sitting room, he discovers a vast army of Camelot courtiers lined up behind the chintz sofa - Ted Sorensen, Sargent Shriver, and pre-eminently Bob McNamara, irresistibly conjured by Clancy Brown and smoothly transferring his talents from the Bay of Pigs to a bay with only one pig. Joe Kennedy's called in the heavyweights, A-list fixers who despise Ted's fixers as Z-list fixers.
This is a more sophisticated and blackly comic view of the nature of politics than, say, George Clooney's Ides of March. The acidic glamour of power corrodes even Mary Jo's fellow Boiler Room Girls. No sooner are they informed that their friend is dead than one of them steps forward to volunteer: "What can we do to help the Senator?" The ladies themselves, having kept their silence for half-a-century, are said to deny this version of events, and the words themselves are put in the mouth of a fictional Boiler Roomer created for the movie: "Rachel" (Olivia Thirlby). But, whatever their motivations, the actions of almost everyone in this tale facilitate the replacement of one victim by another: Edward M Kennedy.
Chappaquiddick is an excellent film that deserves to find an audience. John Curran tells his tale in a matter-of-fact semi-procedural style, punctuated by moments when Teddy seems to be, so to speak, floating dreamily through his own drama: At the height of the crisis, the camera alights on him flying a kite, blank-eyed and beaming and far away from dad's schemes of greatness. The film's visual language subtly underlines the journey he's on: the Edgartown scenes are bright and airy, all sun-dappled porches and spacious vistas, innocent and optimistic. Back at Hyannis Port, the sitting room is literally smoke-filled, the airless, darkened corridors and landings have turned their faces from the world, the better to construct an alternative reality and impose it on the actual facts. In Jason Clarke's performance, Teddy's self-doubt is his most (only?) human quality. But the aim of Joe's fixers is to get the last son to the point where he stops feeling conflicted and unsure, and understands that he's a Kennedy and that that trumps all. As I wrote way back when:
Ted's the star, and there's no room to namecheck the bit players. What befell him was a thing, a place. As Joan Vennochi wrote in The Boston Globe:
'Like all figures in history â€“ and like those in the Bible, for that matter â€“ Kennedy came with flaws. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. Kennedy had Chappaquiddick, a moment of tremendous moral collapse.'
Actually, Peter denied Jesus, rather than 'betrayed' him, but close enough for Catholic-lite Massachusetts. And if Moses having a temper never led him to leave some gal at the bottom of the Red Sea, well, let's face it, he doesn't have Ted's tremendous legislative legacy, does he?
As I mentioned the other day, that bit turns up in the new movie. Joan Vennochi's words are put in Ted's mouth: He says defensively that all men are flawed - "Moses had a temper, Peter betrayed Jesus." And my cheap riposte - "Moses didn't leave a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea" - is given to the outraged Joe Gargan, already on his way out, supplanted by better, colder, harder fixers. When the guy gets out and leaves the girl at the bottom of the sea, it offends the natural order: Joe is telling him he's not a man.
And Ted barely reacts: The angry words fall off him like water off a Chappaquiddick duck's back. Because human feeling is for humans. And he doesn't have to be a man; he's a Kennedy.
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