I’m back again for my 2nd article. I have listened to the feed back on my Young Karl Marx review and have attempted to craft a better and more reviewish review. I will start by explaining what my level of familiarity is with Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident. It is low–I’m 26 and didn’t pay attention to politics or the news in general until a couple years ago, and my early impressions of Ted are from pop culture. The impression I got was that he certainly wasn’t diet Kennedy, but he was Kennedy the lesser. Most noteworthy for his ability to live an average lifespan as a Kennedy. I learned a little more when he died: the Lion of the Senate nickname, his failed presidential run, brief mentions of the Chappaquiddick incident and his years of public service to both our country and the Soviet Union. Now to the film.
I haven’t read any other reviews, so I don’t know how other places view this film, but an important distinction to make is this isn’t a film about the Chappaquiddick incident featuring Ted Kennedy. This is a film about Ted Kennedy set during the Chappaquiddick incident. What this means is that the film is focused on his struggles and is framed from his perspective and his desires. The film opens with a Kennedy family photograph and zooms in a young Ted. The film then cuts to an interview talking about living in JFK’s shadow, and that is the major theme and struggle of this film. Living in his brother’s shadow, his father’s and the public’s expectations. Answering the question, “Where does Ted fit within the Kennedy legacy?” Jason Clarke plays Ted Kennedy, and he mostly does a good job. There are a few moments where you can tell he is ACTING!! His Mayor Quimby accent comes and goes and, in a few instances, even veers toward Bing Crosby territory, but it isn’t too distracting. Kate Mara plays Mary Jo Kopechne, the former campaign staffer of Bobby and the girl who dies. She does an OK job of playing her, but there isn’t much of a character for her to play. Mary Jo’s story before she dies is that she must decide whether to join Ted’s future presidential campaign, and she is the only one of the “Boiler Room” girls who is reluctant both because of what happened to Bobby but also because of who Ted is. We learn hardly anything else about Mary Jo. We only see her in the film within the prism of what she can do for the Kennedy’s.
The film also establishes early on the role of Joe Gargan in the Kennedy family as someone who is either a brother or a fixer, depending on what Ted needs at the moment. The film also gives him the role of a conscience; he’s the person who is trying to steer Ted not towards what is good for Ted or “The Kennedys” but towards what is right. He is belittled and ignored and almost none of his often-good advice is taken. Joe or Joey is played by Ed Helms, who–I don’t know why–has always kind of creeped me out. He did an OK job, but I felt he was kind of distracting in the role. I think he is the most famous person in the cast, and I couldn’t unsee Ed Helms. The other major family presence is his father, played by Bruce Dern who I assume is Laura Dern’s father. Joe Sr. is portrayed first as creepy and later as sad. He is first introduced as a voice over the phone and his health hadn’t been addressed at that point in the film. You hear heavy breathing; it sounds almost like someone masturbating and it reminded me of Frank Booth from Blue Velvet. He utters one word before the call ends and he almost chokes out the word alibi. The first time you see him, the film builds up tension in the manner of a horror film and the sounds of his approach are almost industrial. He is in a wheel chair, shrunken, twisted and largely silent, and he is given an aura of fear and reverence. The big scene with Joe Sr. comes when Ted finally decides to stand up to him and tells him that John and Robert were great men–not because they were made great men by their father but because they were. He tells him he, too, is a great man; he just has to find himself. His dad tells him that he will never be a great man. Ted hugs him and they both cry.
The film visually looks great. It is filmed the way many 60’s films are: lots of pastels and lots of Norman Rockwell influences in the framing and poses people take. The film occasionally strays from the cheery 60’s palette and gets dark and ominous. The camera, unlike Ted, keeps returning to the water and gets all it can out of it. There are horror movie touches scattered throughout the film: his dad, the bridge, the water. The first example is towards the start of the film, where the camera lingers on the Chappaquiddick sign in a way that it might as well say Camp Crystal Lake. The film deals with the fallout of the car accident for the bulk of the film, and it never properly conveys the tension of the situation. Despite a death, it feels less tense than even a film like The Post. The film seems more concerned with Ted’s inner struggle than the exterior struggle of the event. There are countless lawyers and advisers throughout the film who, just like Joey, are giving good advice and are ignored by Ted, who instead fucks things up. One of them was Clancy Brown playing Robert McNamara who, growing up watching Highlander as a child, I was excited to see.
The film ends with most of Ted’s lies coming undone but with almost no legal repercussions. Ted has asked Joey to write a resignation speech to read at a press conference, but instead decides to give an adviser-written speech designed to illicit sympathy and save his career, with Joey reduced to holding his cue cards so he can go “off script”. The film at the end includes some real footage of people reacting to his speech. The opinions are mixed, but most are saying they would still vote for him. One that stood out to me was a woman who was asked if she thought he should run for president and she replied, “That kind of thing isn’t up to me.” I think that attitude sums up a lot about how we ended up where we are and the success of Dynasties like the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons. The film tries to do the opposite of a “warts and all” approach, and looks at a tragedy through a “feels and all” approach and asks should he have been punished or should he have continued on and found a way to give to the world and make good instead. The film also gives Ted the benefit of the doubt in the most important moment of the film. We never see him drinking and it seems like maybe he might just be tired. The crash and Mary Jo’s death are never shown in a way that doesn’t obscure the clock and ambiguity is allowed to creep in. I think this kind of corruption isn’t anything new, but the way it was brushed aside by corruption and pushed out of the limelight was a major public moment of the elites being above accountability that I’m not sure had even been so brazen. It reminds me of recent events in many, many ways, and the Ted Kennedy of this film is probably Jeb Bush’s spirit animal. I’m not sure I would recommend it. It has good elements but at least how I interpreted it gives a lot of support in the direction of the film for Ted even though it shows his many flaws. I don’t know enough to say if it is historically accurate, but I can say it makes me disgusted with the Lion of the Senate nickname.