The main conversation surrounding Chappaquiddick, the drama from John Curran detailing the events following the drunk driving accident perpetrated by Ted Kennedy that cost Robert Kennedy campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne her life, is a political one. A political film breeding political conversation; the equation makes sense.
Apparently the liberal creatives behind the film are frustrated with the lack of liberal media attention for the film, and the conservative audience is the one championing the film for not sugar-coating the incident—although, to play devil’s advocate to the IndieWire piece, a good number of liberal-minded critics have given the film positive reviews.
All the same, most moviegoers are oblivious to the fact that the movie is being released into theaters this weekend. This is because, aside from the petty political squabble over the film’s marketing, Chappaquiddick is a rather torpid affair, and it would have likely benefited from a late-year award season release if this were not the case. Well-acted as it is, the film takes some time before rising to any level of dramatic potential.
Jason Clarke portrays Kennedy, and he does so with an increasingly stern command as his character starts building up walls to protect his own image. He is the only gravitational force that the movie presents us. The rest of the cast function more as a peanut gallery than a series of characters. Ed Helms and Kate Mara put in an effort to elevate themselves to a respectable level, but they too feel out of place in the film.
The film is also elegantly shot. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti has done a lot of work in the documentary mode, but here he adds some visual energy to the unfolding drama.
What he is capturing, however, does not function nearly as dramatic as it ought to. When the film depicts crucial mistakes and faux pas that Kennedy and his crew of fixers (“the boys,” he calls them at one point) make, it plays more comical than what is intended.
At a certain point, it becomes hard to tell whether this is an indictment of corruption and political cover-ups or a farce that throws a pie in the face of Kennedy himself. Given how the film holds on Clarke’s stoic, contemplative face as he finishes addressing the nation on the incident, it seems as though farce is not Curran’s game.
Looking beyond the strange comical layer, and instead taking the cover-up narrative at face value, Chappaquiddick is not an unintelligent film. A person who enjoys historical narratives will likely find this one sufficient. But even the political intrigue of the plot does not expose itself until about halfway through the runtime. Before that, we are presented with a deliberate reenactment of the incident and the hours immediately following, one that I suppose is meant to be gripping and suspenseful but only manages to be sleepy.
Perhaps the film’s biggest feat is its politicization. A self-described liberal director creating a film that apparently is more beloved by conservatives than liberals is a testament to the film’s lack of bias in its retelling. It doesn’t outright condemn Ted Kennedy, but it certainly never aims to glorify him either. Focusing more on the incident than on the legacy of the man involved is a good angle in this regard, even if the execution does not yield the most compelling or even-keeled result.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)