WOOF! Watchdogs of Our Freedom

“CHAPPAQUIDDICK” or, WOOF reviews another film it hasn’t seen!

In "Ready when you are C.B.!" forum on May 14, 2018 at 4:01 pm

Our guarantee of freshness:

Seasoned readers are by now familiar with WOOF’s habit of reviewing films while adhering to our iron-clad rule that no film will be reviewed on our website unless our reviewers have scrupulously avoided seeing it. We believe our strict adherence to this standard ensures that ours are the fairest, most impartial cinema critiques anywhere in cyberspace. Limiting ourselves to movies we haven’t seen obviously frees our analyses of those partialities that would inevitably accrue during any actual exposure to the works under consideration. Apparently quite a few of you agree, as our movie reviews are always among our most popular posts, and among the most visited after time has swept them from our ‘front page’ to our archives. It is therefore with considerable pleasure, and not a little reportorial pride, that we present our latest film review of a movie we haven’t seen, namely “CHAPPAQUIDDICK,” Directed by John Curran, Screenwriters: Taylor Allen; Andrew Logan; cinematography by Maryse Alberti; edited by Keith Fraase.

__________________________

In his Cooper Union speech, Abraham Lincoln offered a timeless condemnation of those who, then as now, proffer compromise as though it were an Aristotelian master stroke. All right, we admit it–some occasions require a little give and take. In certain situations, trade-offs prove the beneficial fruits of what an author once called “the art of the deal.” But far more often they are smarmy abandonments of principle disguised as statesmanship—or what Lincoln denounced as “contrivances…groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong,” which contrivances he proceeded to denounce as “vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man.” Of course, Lincoln was unfamiliar with Schrodinger’s cat, but we digress.

Neither living nor dead.

Ted Kennedy is dead, or, as the Munchkin coroner described the Wicked Witch of the East, “Really most sincerely dead.” And yet, in the interest of even-handedness, (or perhaps less lofty–if completely understandable–considerations) the film Chappaquiddick portrays him as what Lincoln might have called “neither a living man nor a dead man” in the sense that screenwriters Allen and Logan repeatedly subject the Senator to withering fusillades of biographic divulgement, but in each instance demur at administering the coup de gras.

Director Curran–funny, he doesn’t look unhinged.

Why, you may ask, is a temperate, fair-minded organization like WOOF suddenly driven to envenom a film review with so vulgar an instinct as vindictiveness; especially when critics as diverse as Glenn Beck and the Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers agree that Chappaquiddick’s excellence is due largely to its dramatic restraint? Why, when even New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, (though admitting trepidation at the film’s release), is able to offer a complimentary review based on the film’s “forsaking sensationalism for sober, procedural storytelling,” should WOOF take pains to stake out the low ground, and fault Chappaquiddick for the very qualities extolled by so many of its admirers?  We think Barry Goldwater best explained our position during his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention. Conservatives will recall his averral that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” but the Arizonan most precisely summarized our case against John Curran’s new film when he added that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” And that’s what Lincoln was trying to tell us, too. And that’s what we are trying to tell you.  In other words, our disappointment stems less from what Chappaquiddick is, than from what it might have been.

“You’re all we’ve got!”

A young Al Lowenstein, around the time he realized there was nothing left but Teddy.

So, imagine for a moment that our film opens in the immediate wake of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, or put another way, at the dawn of the popular jape: “They’re like the Kennedys, all the good ones have been taken!” And as if by way of demonstration, we find ourselves inside the elevator at Good Samaritan Hospital where a shaken, ghostly-pale Teddy (as the press affectionately dubbed Edward Moore Kennedy) is accompanying his slain brother’s body to the basement morgue. Suddenly, the door slides open and a nearly hysterical Al Lowenstein, (Kennedy adviser, anti-war icon, occasional office seeker) rushes aboard. Looking up to glimpse Ted, Lowenstein grabs him by the shoulders, shakes him frantically, and shouts, “Now that Bobby’s gone, you’re all we’ve got!” We zoom in on Ted’s face—he gapes speechlessly at Lowenstein, open-mouthed, petrified, incapable of verbalizing a response. We fade to black and superimpose the words: “One year later…”

Cut to an interior shot aboard an airliner returning from a 1969 congressional trip billed as a fact-finding mission to investigate Inuit poverty in Alaska. Ted Kennedy, (who earlier stumbled drunkenly into the airport at Anchorage shouting “ESKIMO POWAH!”), is now shown surrounded by aids and flight attendants trying to restrain him as he stumbles and reels down the aisle, bellowing, “They’re going to shoot my ass off the way they shot off Bobby’s!” An aide grabs the senator’s spastically waving hand and presses a hot cup of coffee into it. Kennedy grasps the cup, but lurches wildly when a stewardess attempts to guide him toward his seat. He nearly scalds a mother and her infant in the adjacent row. Insensible of the offense, Kennedy continues ranting about his impending doom as his attendants coax him back to his seat. He shouts “ESKIMO POWAHHH!!” a few more times, contenting himself, finally, with tossing dinner rolls at reporters while his team scrambles to pacify the offended passengers.

Next, we watch Teddy’s airliner land in Seattle. Reporters who witnessed the incident dash into the terminal to file their scoops, but we watch in shocked disbelief as the screen shifts to a mélange of newspaper editors and network news producers ordering the story “spiked”—killed—forgotten. It’s 1969, and no writers apart from a handful of vile, shadow-dwelling right-wing misanthropic scribblers of unreviewed, fringe-marketed books (who probably voted for Goldwater and almost certainly for Nixon), report dirt on the Kennedys.

Cut to an exterior shot of Newsweek’s Manhattan headquarters, identifiable by the magazine’s logo blazoned across the building’s top story. We zoom in through a window high above Hanover Square into an office in which a seasoned reporter urgently dials a phone. The screen inserts his name, John Lindsay, and identifies him as “Senate reporter for Newsweek magazine.” This saves confusion among audience members old enough to otherwise mistake him for the contemporaneous mayor of New York City. No, this is John J. Lindsay, accomplished journalist. His appearance raises the prospect of integrity triumphing over sycophancy. And look! Lindsay’s deeply furrowed brow bespeaks grave concern. Perhaps he is laying his job on the line. Perhaps he is phoning his editor, demanding the Kennedy story be told and told truthfully. After all, Lindsay fits a specific Hollywood stereotype geared to resonate with the American psyche–the hardened newshound defending the people’s right to know. Surely, his infectious ardor, his rhetorical passion, will rekindle long-dormant convictions in his veteran editor—Ed Asner, maybe–a crotchety-but-noble industry pro who after a few efforts at dissuasion leans back, pours himself a jigger of rye, and rasps, “Why not? Why not one last crusade!?”

“Why not one last crusade?” Well, Asner probably wouldn’t have done the picture, for one thing!

Disaster waiting to happen!

“That’s right–disaster wairting to happen! No, no, even worse than getting kicked out of Harvard!”

But no, that isn’t what happens. The phone isn’t answered by Lindsay’s editor, it is answered by a mysterious female. Is it—could it be—Joan Kennedy? Jackie, even? Whoever it is, Lindsay begins telling her about the airplane debacle, entreating her to take a hand, to do something “before something really terrible happens!”  “Ted is out of control,” Lindsay insists, and then, in a voice lowered almost to a whisper, he adds, “Ted is under terrible stress—and I’m telling you, if he doesn’t get help, he’s a disaster waiting to happen!

Is that you, Jackie?

Okay, not what we were hoping for, perhaps, but this can still work. We simply cut away from Lindsay’s close up with one of those abruptly jarring Thelonious Monk chords used nowadays to punctuate dramatic movie moments, and we “smash cut” from Lindsay’s under lit office to our main locale–a bucolic, riparian setting in somnolent New England. We find ourselves juxtapositionally tranquilized—but look out! To the nail-biting clang of another Thelonious Monk chord we INSERT TITLE CARD (that’s movie talk) and the screen is suddenly ablaze with a single, momentous word:  Chappaquiddick!

Our story so far….

So, beloved readers, how do you like the movie so far? We think it’s pretty impressive. And historically faithful? Absolutely!  Okay, except for that part about the woman on the other end of Lindsay’s phone call. We made her up, or rather we hypothesized her, because even though almost everyone agrees on the language Lindsay employed, nobody seems certain to whom he spoke it. And there’s one other problem—namely, none of what we just described is actually in the movie. File it under what MAD magazine used to call “scenes we’d like to see.” Historically verifiable, but consigned to the cutting room floor of our imaginations. Chappaquiddick, after all, made it past the New York Times by “forsaking sensationalism,” possibly because Curran knew his biopic, were it sensational even in a manner befitting Edward Kennedy’s depraved life and career, would die aborning—insufficiently immunized against a bilious media, not to mention the wrath of Hyannisport…a malignant force ruinous to the careers of more than a few entertainers, journalists, and biographers, even today.

The post-unassailable plunge….

Teddy, 2004, calling school vouchers “racisst” and “handouts to the wealthy!”

Ted Kennedy, however, is what we might call post-unassailable—although he is probably less annoyed by that fact than the family, having died of brain cancer in 2009.  He was the last of the golden Kennedys–the sons of Joseph and Rose–and his passing was prelude to the waning of the family’s mystique.  A measure of karmic justice is detectable in this, and not a little irony, because the Kennedy legacy fell victim to the very educational policies for which Ted fought tooth and nail—in other words, a single-option, federally regulated archipelago of public schools from which students are routinely graduated despite a conspicuous lack of reading, writing, or ciphering skills, or the merest grasp of science apart from an alertness to global warming.

More significant from the Kennedys’ standpoint, however, is the absence in recent generations of even a glancing acquaintance with American history, apart from an ingrained certitude that Columbus was a genocidal maniac, the Pilgrims were deluded religionists bent on ravaging the environment, that the Founders invented slavery–which was accidentally ended by the Civil War, which was not about slavery—and that Ronald Reagan almost bankrupted the economy with his crazy supply-side economic boom. But Liberalism’s rush to erase any taint of Americanism from our schools came with a hefty side order of blowback. Canons of faith fanatically nurtured by the Left for generations vanished into the same memory hole as George Washington and Sam Adams, a design flaw that left younger Americans untutored in such articles of faith as the saintliness of the Kennedys, the demonic evil of Joe McCarthy, or even such recent taradiddle as the incomparable brilliance of Hillary Clinton.

“Very little, I’m afraid…”

Professor Czitrom –searching for Camelot in the age of Absurdistan.

kind of brutal egalitarianism inhered in public education’s great leap forward: a purification that expunged our past from the lesson plans without regard to any given item’s significance on the political spectrum. Thus, the Kennedys aren’t simply diminished by an educational system grown neglectful of burnishing the family’s mystique. The progressive effort to divorce recent generations from their heritage means the Kennedys are barely mentioned–no more dwelt upon than Ike, Coolidge, or the Teapot Dome Scandal. In 2015, in recognition of 50 years gone by since the assassination of JFK, Professor of History Daniel Czitrom of Mount Holyoke College gave an interview during which he was asked to describe what modern college students know about our 35th president. “Very little, I’m afraid,” was his frank assessment. Small wonder, then, that they know and care even less about his vacuous little brother.

There are, it seems, opinions to the contrary. A review by Susan Wloszczyna suggests Chappaquiddick will do well owing to the presence of the “in-vogue-again Kennedy clan at the center.” On the off-chance that Wloszczyna isn’t nuts, isn’t a resurgence of Kennedymania all the more reason for Chappaquiddick to ‘speak truth to power’ unequivically? But instead we are treated to a barrage of softballs, like dorky Ted vowing to win a regatta, but slamming his sailboat into a marker buoy and catapulting both his passengers into the brine.  Okay, a dramatic foreshadowing of events to come, (and a sailing career littered with rammed obstacles, capsized catamarans, and other madcap feats of incompetence) but nevertheless…?

The “in-vogue-again Kennedy clan,” okay, that blew right past us!

The details, where most dramatically requisite, seem softened to implications. The six “Boiler Room Girls,” as the winsome young staffers formerly employed by Bobby’s campaign were jovially known, are partying in the wake of their boss’s untimely death with a bunch of married guys, one of them being Ted (whose wife Joan is home bedridden with a failing pregnancy soon to end in miscarriage, though the film makes no mention of the fact). Ted is hosting the wingding at the cottage of his chum, lawyer Sidney Lawrence. The cottage is located on Chappaquiddick Island, accessible by ferry from Martha’s Vineyard. So, what really went on at that party?

In the film, we witness a relatively demure replication of nineteen-sixties-style drinking and dancing–demurrer by far than any such festivities featuring Teddy and friends were ever known to be. Indeed, what the Guardian’s reviewer rather inferentially pronounced “a tawdry, boozy weekend” seems more like a scene from a Troy Donahue film of the same era—a bit jazzy and raucous, perhaps, but in an artfully understated Warner Brothers kind of way.

Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in the party scene from “Chappaquiddick,” or is she auditioning for a remake of “A Summer Place”?

And what’s going on between Teddy and Mary Jo? Enquiring minds want to know, and a scenario presenting the most probable interpretation based on the evidence might seem a legitimate obligation for filmmakers recreating that evening’s events—but again, we are offered nuances. The party scene lasts until nearly midnight when the 37-year old Teddy and his 28-year old passenger are shown leaving in Teddy’s Oldsmobile and blundering onto a dirt road leading toward Dike Bridge. The notion that Kennedy, no matter how drunk, negotiated the substantial turn necessary to leave the island’s one paved thoroughfare (a straight shot to Mary Jo’s hotel) and proceed down the jarringly distinct gravel road, seems implausible. Almost certainly, the plan was to seek a secluded spot, but no such thought is imputed to Ted in the film. Indeed, in the crucial moments between the inexplicable turn and the infamous result, Curran’s penchant for “sober, procedural story telling” deprives us of any hint of explication. No dialogue, no exchange of glances, no telling expressions, impinge upon the camera’s exterior depictions. In other words, if you are not an oblivious millennial, you are shown a visually dramatic reproduction of what you already knew, or at least more or less suspected.

“Desirous of leaving…”

“Maybe if we’d put up a ‘no U-turn’ sign?”

One thing everyone knows (conspiracy theorists and millennials excepted) was that Kennedy was driving, having demanded the keys from Crimmins, his chauffeur (WOOF did not make that name up).  Kennedy later testified that Mary Jo told him “she was desirous of leaving, and [asked] if I would be kind enough to drop her back at her hotel.” Asked why he didn’t have his chauffeur drive them, Kennedy explained that the aforesaid Crimmins and some other guests “were concluding their meal, enjoying the fellowship and it didn’t appear to be necessary to require him to bring me back to Edgartown.” So how was Crimmins getting back? Oh, never mind. More piquantly, Kopechne (played on screen by Olivia Thirlby) told no one at the party she was leaving with Kennedy and left her purse and hotel key behind, suggesting a plan qualitatively distinct from the one Kennedy later described. But who knows? Evidently not screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, because a more-than-casual relationship between Mary Jo and Kennedy is barely—ever so lambently—implied.

Apart from a scene in which Ted begs her to return to Washington despite her trauma in the aftermath of Bobby’s assassination, Mary Jo’s character is never established. The writers’ determination to avoid any hint of creative license—perhaps in the belief that a mechanistic adherence to the available facts is the best way to escape accusations of right-wing bias–deprives viewers of any connection with Kopechne’s humanity, reducing her to a prop–the first victim of Director Curran’s emphatic commitment to naturalism.

Mary Jo–deserving of a lot more that “sober, procedural restraint.”

Nobody living, of course, knows exactly what went on in Ted’s Oldsmobile that night, and nobody in his right mind supposes Kennedy ever gave a truthful account. It is moments like these that lend themselves to artistic license, and one can argue that Curran’s film exercises some, but not enough to raise any hackles. We are shown Teddy slurping whiskey from a bottle—a fact that not even the staunchest Kennedy fan can take rational issue with, especially given a a subsequent career during which, as George Will once observed, Teddy proved incapable of sounding authentically commanding “except when in hailing distance of a bar.”

Not guilty! And he didn’t even show up in a neck brace!

We are next shown Teddy at the wheel, casting what we take to be a semi-lascivious glance at Mary Jo. Will he pounce on her, the way his nephew William Kennedy Smith pounced on Patricia Bowman at the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach while Teddy and cousin Patrick watched with besotted indifference? [Editor’s note: WOOF refrains here from using the verb “raped,” inasmuch as William Kennedy Smith was acquitted of rape despite the victim’s testimony, not to mention the testimony of three other young ladies accusing Smith of sexual assault, which the judge refused to allow. It ended happily for Smith’s attorney, however, who married one of the jurors after the verdict came in.]

At any rate, just as we prepare ourselves for some bare-knuckled artistic license, splash! Teddy no sooner casts his arguably lascivious gaze upon the fair Mary Jo than he drives his car off the bridge–a timely lesson in the dangers of distracted driving, we suppose; but otherwise a bit of a blow to the narrative—and a peculiarly nonchalant means of arriving at a climax. Anyway, we cut to the dramatic underwater footage, obviously shot in a tank, because it’s really hard to see anything underwater in Poucha Pond, particularly around midnight. True to events, the car capsizes and settles to the bottom.

Not exactly the PT 109, but at least it’s in one piece!

“An act of killing”

Owen Gleiberman of VARIETY. “even worse than we think!”

Apparently, Owen Gleiberman of Variety has spent decades in some sort of self-imposed Kennedy oblivion. He declares his shock at discovering that “what the film says [sic]… happened at Chappaquiddick was even worse than we think. Kopechne’s body was found in a position that implied that she was struggling to keep her head out of the water. And what the film suggests is that once the car turned upside down, she didn’t die; she was alive and then drowned, after a period of time, as the water seeped in.” Suggests? Heck, Owen, she didn’t drown at all. John Farrar, the captain of the Edgartown Fire Rescue unit–the diver who recovered Kopechne’s body–reported decades ago that she died from asphyxiation, not drowning.

Damore’s book is now retitled “Chappaquiddick.” The author reportedly committed suicide after its publication. He’s with Marilyn now.

But we forgive Mr. Gleiberman’s abysmal ignorance of what every non-sanitized chronicler of the event since the publication of Senatorial Privilege by Leo Damore has described as a slow, horrifying suffocation, and we even forgive his assumption that the rest of us share his ignorance, because he is taken sufficiently off guard by the film’s accurate depiction of the matter to exclaim, “This makes Edward Kennedy’s decision not to report the crime a clear-cut act of criminal negligence — but in spirit (if not legally), it renders it something closer to an act of killing.” Good thinking, Owen, you’re now better informed than several other major reviewers, including the ones on Rotten Tomatoes, where Kopechne’s death is still described as a “tragic drowning.”  Funny how infrequently “an act of killing” seems to come to up, by contrast.

A fact everybody agrees on,  albeit with greater or lesser degrees of thanksgiving, is that Ted survived.  We next glimpse him fighting free of the submerged sedan, battling toward the surface of the water tank in a maze of bubbles, breaking the surface of an actual body of water (shot elsewhere and tidily edited into the sequence by Keith Fraase) whereupon he struggles onto the marshy embankment.

We must admit we like this part, or rather, we’re sure we would like it, if we actually went to see the movie. Writers Allen and Logan laudably avoid any impulse to “go Hollywood,” despite what must have been considerable temptation.  All that is needed at this point to indue Teddy with a salvific hint of pathos is a bit of creative license–a manufactured moment or two, confected as a peace offering to the Left. Let’s say, an extenuatively conflicted Teddy, torn by ambivalence, perhaps filmed at a disorienting “Dutch tilt” to better connote our hero’s dazed confusion, arcing into a dramatic close-up as the Senator writhes in the throes of moral vacillation only to succumb, like Orestes, to his murderous hamartia.  But no such mitigative pretense blunts the starkness of Chappaquiddick. Rather, from the moment he climbs ashore, Teddy concerns himself exclusively with self-preservation and the ignoble politics of damage control.  He may be a drunk and a skunk, but even soaked and soused he rallies his reserves in the cause of solipsism, and begins his trek back to the party. As he does so, the film clearly depicts him trudging past an immediately adjacent fire-and-rescue station, as in fact he did, without a moment’s thought given to reporting Mary Jo’s plight.

Well, there’s your problem!

The real Joe Gargin. Note the shifty, beady eyes! Actor Helms looks like James Bond by comparison.

Back at the cottage, Kennedy pulls aside Joe Gargan, his cousin, confidant, drinking buddy, and lawyer (played by Ed Helms). “We’ve got a problem,” Ted glurps, and then, sensing Gargan’s incomprehension, he explains, “I’m not going to be president.” That Mary Jo might also have a problem, or that her thoughts, huddled in her air pocket, might not exclusively involve Teddy’s presidential aspirations, seems to creep into Kennedy’s consciousness by sluggish increments– and even then, as a problem of collateral damage. The main crisis involves the threat to the Kennedy legacy.

Gargan, on hearing the details, implores Ted to report the incident—and Massachusetts Attorney General Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), re-emphasizes the point. But Teddy demurs. He agrees he should make a report, of course, but all in good time. To report the matter precipitately—or  in other words, to report it while he is blatantly sozzled—invites the risk of being charged with driving under the influence….and how would that look? That Kennedy floats (sorry!) a concern so insanely remote from the situation’s blatant exigencies, in itself boggles the mind– yet, as the film demonstrates, a crew of grown, legally trained, supposedly intelligent adults, waits complicity through the wee hours and into the morning while their golden boy sobers up—and, of course, while Mary Jo Kopechne suffocates.  Why? Mainly because, as Al Lowenstein would make plain at the beginning of the film (if they’d shot our version, that is), Edward Moore Kennedy is all they’ve got left!

Sometimes, the coverup doesn’t get you!

Bruce Dern, (actually from “The Hateful Eight,” but imagine him saying: “Alibiiii!!!”)

The bandaiding of Teddy’s image is the film’s next subject. An obsequious Ted fesses up to his father, Joe, by telephone. Joseph Kennedy is masterfully recreated by veteran actor Bruce Dern (whom we hereby forgive for killing John Wayne in The Cowboys). The Kennedy patriarch was virtually invalided by 1969, the victim of a debilitating stroke. This datum leaves writers Allen and Logan with little creative leeway if they mean to preserve historical plausibility.  Joe’s dialogue, therefore, is limited to a few gurgles, some monosyllabic blurtings, and a final, almost Satanic growl that rumbles, swells, and rises to a guttural crescendo, as old Joe manages to articulate the word, “Alibiiii!!!”  If there is an academy award for best performance as a barely verbal, ruthlessly Machiavellian, patriarchal stroke victim, Dern is a shoo in.

The real Robert McNamara–all the grim magnetism of a toadstool.

Next, we meet two former JFK all-stars dispatched by Old Joe with orders to rescue his nitwit son. Theodore Sorensen (who actually wrote Jack’s bestseller Profiles in Courage–don’t tell anyone) is played with an appropriate hint of well-tailored effeteness by Taylor Nichols. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is portrayed by Clancy Brown, whom Variety praises as “grimly magnetic,” which, if true, surely bespeaks poor casting by Marisol Rincali and Mary Vernieu, given that Robert Strange McNamara, even at his least inhuman, possessed all the grim magnetism of a toad stool.

Never mind the neck brace, can’t the man knot a tie properly?

The two Camelot veterans set to work immediately, constructing an artifice of spin, misdirection, legal loopholes and sheer skullduggery to buoy (sorry!) Teddy’s political career. The alibi, given such strident priority by Joe, works well on paper but assumes comedic dimensions once its intricacies are entrusted to Ted, who, being Ted, flummoxes the fine points repeatedly. Like it or not, the contrast between the coolly reptilian “fixers,” and their stumbling, self-pitying, barely lucid protectee, is inescapably funny. Comic relief in a film about Kopechne’s abandonment and torturous death might seem offensively tone-deaf were it manufactured–but in Chappaquiddick, a touch of slapstick is inherent in events.

Without shifting the timber of their narrative, the filmmakers allow the record to elicit laughter as Teddy bollixes item after item, revealing belatedly that, on top of everything else, his driver’s license is expired.  It slipped his mind. Such minutiae seemed immaterial in Ted’s world– a world in which no sentient organism would dream of troubling a Kennedy over such formalities–unless—unless—well, unless he abandoned some women at the bottom of a pond. Instructed to recite an artfully crafted compendium of legal elusions and self-serving mendacities to the press, Ted repeatedly bumbles the script, ad libbing a series of unhelpful contradictions. He shows up at Mary Jo’s funeral, wife Joan traipsing forlornly at his side, his neck trussed up in a supportive brace–a prop calculated to evoke sympathy. But the Senator can’t resist swiveling his head frantically in a compulsive effort to assess the crowd, and the neck brace becomes an object of ridicule.

Go fly a kite!

Finally, while his fixers work with febrile avidity to save him from any hint of personal responsibility, we are treated to a wonderful cross-cut shot of Ted, standing in a grassy field, flying a kite. We push in for a close up of his face and behold a perfect study in puerile detachment.  Magnificent cinema—did it really happen?  Given the filmmakers’ widely heralded scrupulosity, we prefer to suppose it did—but if Curran and his writers invented it, we exhort them to indulge their creative juices more often. In any case, Teddy’s eyes are rightly cast skyward, whence comes his salvation–albeit from NASA, not Jehovah.  As the film reminds us, the Apollo 11 moon mission reached the lunar surface concurrently with the Senator’s less auspicious landing, diverting public attention almost entirely from the murky depths of Poucha Pond to the ashen lunarscape of Mare Tranquillitatis.

The first men on the moon–Buzz Aldrin and Neal Armstrong. Collins remained on the orbiter, and everybody else was so uplifted by news of the crew’s safe return, no one felt mean enough to make any “splashdown” jokes.

Back on earth, if Martha’s Vineyard qualifies, Ted’s extraction by the passionless Camelot crew from the ruins of his immediate past unfolds in infuriating detail. The  movie gets it mostly right, from the local physician summoned to verify Teddy’s non-existent concussion (without examining him) to the deal cut with Ted’s good friend, the local prosecutor, who agrees to charge Kennedy with nothing more serious than leaving the scene of an accident (which in turn sets the scene for suspending his sentence entirely). The film grinds matter-of-factly through the assortment of slimy deeds and distortions requisite to salvaging the Senator’s political future.

Multidimensional Ted….

Our complaints about them aside,, Chappaquiddick’s many gentlemanly forbearances seem insufficient to account for its generally felicitous reception by the liberal establishment.  We confess surprise at the degree to which progressive reviewers seem agreeably disposed toward director Curran’s experiment in cinematic abstemiousness.  That said, reviewers seem uniformly incapable of referring to the incident as anything other than a tragedy, by which is slyly, even unconsciously, implied a tragedy for poor Teddy, and for America itself, of course, which supposedly lost all hope of reestablishing Camelot inside the Beltway when Teddy forfeited his heirdom.  In this vein, CNN initially reviewed the film as recounting “one of Ted Kennedy’s darkest hours,” before enough reminders poured in that Mary Jo’s experience was a bit darker, and the headline was quietly revised. Still, the tendency, often implicit, to equate Kennedy at Chappaquiddick with Oedipus at the crossroads, seems irresistible. And as we mentioned earlier, establishment critics seem unanimously resolved to emphasize Kopechne’s “death by drowning,” as if beset by some peculiar manifestation of perceptual blindness.

An extreme example is Neil Gabler, one of only a few liberal commentators who utterly despised the film.  Gabler vented his anguish in a shrilly denunciatory op-ed for the New York Times, berating Chappaquiddick’s “outright character assassination,” without offering a single evidentiary example. Gabler argues that a fair account would depict the real Ted, about whom Gabler says–in syntax muddled a bit, one supposes, by emotion–“His was a large-life, tragic and multidimensional figure.”

Of course, before he moved to PBS, Gabler worked as a Fox News host, meaning liberals won’t believe anything he says anyway!

Those of us who remember the late Senator more as a large, drunken, two-dimensional, boorishly amoral, serial sex offender, may shrug off Gabler’s hysterics as reflexive caterwauling, but we mustn’t dismiss his characterization of Kennedy so glibly. The recasting of Ted as a figure of near-lyrical tragicality is a fixation on the Left.  Almost in cadence, critics praise Chappaquiddick’s “naturalism” only to veer into lamentations of  Teddy’s ill-starred destiny.  In this regard, the media begin to function as a kind of addlepated Greek chorus bemoaning their hero’s mistreatment by the jealous gods. The establishment impulse to reframe Ted’s abhorrent actions as inescapably imposed upon him by the Fates—some ineluctable decree of Moira—forms the basis of yet another liberal trope, rehearsed ad nauseam by all the usual cretins.

Don’t you get the eerie feeling you’re watching CNN?

The Greek connection….

And Bobby made his comparison before anyone knew how much his little brother’s future would have in common wiith the punishment of Tantalus!

The Greek angle is hardly a recent impulse. Biographer Edward Klein is on record insisting, “I’ve looked high and low and cannot find another family since the ancient Greek House of Atreus that has suffered more calamities and misfortunes than the Kennedys.” Stifle, for the moment, any effort to imagine Ed Klein looking “high and low,” and consider instead: Bobby jumpstarted this image shortly before his death, comparing his family’s misfortunes to Greek drama, and specifically to the myth of Atreus.  Bobby called his ilk “noble and doomed.” Sorry, Bobby, but no human quality more conspicuously eluded Ted Kennedy than nobility, a fact that has never restrained his admirers from contriving to bestow it on him, even more so in death.

Avi Selk, general assignment reporter for The Washington Post, psychic channeler.

Examples abound. Avio Selk matter-of-factly reports in the Washington Post that “among the scrambled thoughts that came to a young Ted Kennedy as he stumbled from the water…was a sort of existential question, if not a supernatural one.”  That’s right. Selk knows what Ted was thinking, and it seems that he was at that very moment preoccupied with the notion that “some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys.” This must explain why he plodded past the fire station without a sideward glance– he was precognitively obsessed with the exact verbiage Ted Sorensen would later create for his television address, a major objective of which was to distract viewers from Kopechne’s fate, focusing them instead on poor, tragic, possibly cursed, Teddy.  Is it possible that Selk actually believes himself?

Teddy Kennedy an “archetypal hero?” If Sophocles wasn’t dead, that’d kill him!

Katie Walsh of the Tribune News Service must be in concert with her classical muse. She tells us the film “grapples with the impossible question of doing the ‘right’ thing.” Is she serious? Would notifying the immediately proximal first responders and rescuing Mary Jo, have been an “impossible choice?” Impossible choices turn up in Sophocles, Katie—they have nothing to do with Ted Kennedy’s craven disregard for a young women’s survival while he focused on constructing his “Alibi!

And yet, David Usborne, writing in the UK Independent reminds his readers that “Edward Moore Kennedy was also an archetypal…hero, buffeted equally by tragic happenstance beyond his control and by the shortcomings of his own character.”  In the Santa Monica Mirror, Kathy Whitney Boole insists that “Kennedy’s personality flaws led him to make tragically bad choices as the Chappaquiddick incident played out,” which dutifully invites the Euripidean paradigm. But Ted’s “bad choices” in the wake of Chappaquiddick are more remindful of Plautus, the Roman playwriter who said, “a wise man creates his own destiny.” Plautus never saw Chappaquiddick, of course, or he might have expanded his point to include foolish men, who also create their own destinies–but are less inclined to accept them.

A flabby denouement 

Curran employs flashbacks, mainly of the flooding car, throughout the film’s last reel. The future, however, is less well represented. There is mention of Kennedy’s subsequent reelections to office, and of his iconic status on the Left, which restyled him the “Lion of the Senate” –an epithet only liberals can recite without giggling.

But we began this review by admitting we are more bloodthirsty than Curran and Company, and we maintain that a proper treatment of the manipulations and deceptions that kept Kennedy above water (sorry), demands further elucidation. Would it really “politicize” the film were it to epilogically review how effectively such tactics served Kennedy going forward? We suspect Curran’s widely voiced assertions to this effect dissemble an unwillingness to be eaten alive for his troubles. And we sympathize—we really do–but we at WOOF enjoy the luxury of media inattention (not that we’d care in any case), and we demand a re-shoot!

The Honorable Chris Dodd displaying a sandwich of the non-waitress variety.

In an age when moviegoers are shocked to learn Chappaquiddick is even “a thing,” why not a series of vignettes covering only a smattering of instances from The Lion’s unbroken history of  manhandling, assaulting, subjugating, and–when necessary–paying off vulnerable women, including his wife Joan, whom he drove (sorry again!) first to drink, then to despair, and, finally, to divorce?  Ted’s appetence for making “waitress sandwiches” out of female serving staff when dining at La Brasserie, The Monocle, or other favorite D.C. eateries, would make compelling cinema. In these debaucheries Ted counted on the assistance of Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) because waitress sandwiches require two slices of extremely toasted, powerfully enriched white bread.

Brevity (and propriety) are best served by detailing only one such instance. We could watch Teddy invite waitress Carla Gaviglio  back for a few words in 1985, seize hold of her, hoist her aloft and slam her five-foot, three-inch frame onto his table top in an explosion of china and crystal–(the optics are irresistible!) We watch as Teddy flings his obscenely obese body atop Gaviglio. He gropes her, ravages her, rips her outfit, but suddenly, in mid-spoiliation, he pauses. Why? Of course! Teddy has recalled his drinking buddy, Dodd, who is watching from a chair. Yielding to one of his famously magnanimous impulses, Teddy staggers upright, grabs the terrified waitress by her wrist, slings her into Dodd’s waiting lap, and heaves himself into the mix from the rear. The sandwich is underway!

By the late ’80s, the Lion had bloated to such proportions that surviving a waitress sandwich was no mean feat.

We picked this particular instance because the producers could replicate it without hazarding their PG-13 rating.  Teddy and Chris, of course, are intent on an X-rated outcome,  but their designs are frustrated by the restaurant’s dishwashing crew. Unlettered commoners too benighted to comprehend senatorial privilege or liberal entitlement, they intervene physically on the  waitress’s behalf. Ted and Chris beat a retreat to their waiting limo and decide to cruise for underage girls street side.  In the interest of verisimilitude, we run a screen insert from the Hartford Courant, reading: “Dodd and Kennedy were…reported to have made a ‘human sandwich’ with a waitress at La Brasserie, [a] Capitol Hill restaurant. The report had it that Kennedy threw the woman on Dodd, who was slumped in a chair, and then jumped on top of her. She was said to have run screaming from the room.” 

Relative to the beard….

But enough salacity, let’s cut to Ted (eagerly abetted in this instance by Joe Biden)  pioneering previously unplumbed depths in the politics of personal destruction. We watch Ted  bloviating sanctimoniously, jowls aquiver, against the evils of Judge Robert Bork, one of the best qualified Supreme Court nominees ever presented for congressional review, and whose appointment Kennedy torpedoed with a mélange of nearly psychotic falsehoods, defamations, and unfounded charges.

Robert Bork, beset by Kennedy and Biden who were briefly upstaged by Howell Heflin (D., Ala.) who challenged Bork with: “Would you like to give us an explanation relative to the beard?””

But that’s nothing. What about collaborating with the North Vietnamese Communists during the Vietnam War? But never mind that, if time won’t permit we can cut straight to Ted colluding with the Russians–and how topical is that?–yes, we can trace in a quick succession of atmospherically compelling black-and-white images the Senator’s treasonable interactions with the leaders of the former U.S.S.R., including his meetings with the implacably anti-American Yuri Andropov with whom Teddy secretly conspired to rig an election in order to unseat Ronald Reagan. (Andropov died before the plan could be launched, and his successors were less pathologically inclined.)

Who killed Teddy?

One indelible axiom that Chappaquiddick services unabashedly, is that Ted Kennedy’s presidential aspirations were crushed that fateful night in 1969 when he attempted a left turn on a one-lane bridge. Believe us when we tell you, gentle readers, this is simply not the case. Here is what really happened:

Chilling, even today!

So efficiently did the Kennedy machine and the press conspire to flush Mary Jo Kopechne down the memory hole, wiping any trace of stain from the Kennedy escutcheon, that Teddy very nearly seized the Democratic nomination from the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, in 1979. A labor-backed “draft Teddy” movement suddenly mushroomed to seemingly unstoppable proportions. A Boston Globe poll showed Carter trailing Kennedy in a hypothetical match-up by a jarring 22 points. Might Kennedy have grabbed the nomination and gone on to defeat Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election? Admittedly, the thought is too horrific to contemplate—but fortunately, the horror never reified. Kennedy’s momentum was not broken, however, by remembrances of Chappaquiddick—no, the press of that era denounced any allusion to Ted’s “tragedy” as an unforgivable lapse of journalistic principle, just as in 2008 they declared any reference to Barack Obama’s radical affiliations (or middle name) racist.

Teddy upstaging Jimmy in 1979–the Lion’s path to the West Wing seemed wide open.

The hapless Roger Mudd, circa 1980–no more lunches in Hyannisport for YOU, Roger!

Ironically, (and this is the part that really is almost authentically Greek) it was the liberal media, in the person of longtime Kennedy associate, Hyannisport invitee, (and–lest we forget to mention– unassailably objective and highly respected network journalist) Roger Mudd, who accidentally destroyed Ted’s bid for the White house on November 4, 1979. The implosion came during a widely viewed CBS network program aired in those bygone days when everybody watched one of the three major networks, or nothing at all.

The cakewalk that failed…

It was supposed to be a cakewalk, of course—an almost prototypical example of liberal media playing patty cake with a liberal politico and calling it journalism. But halfway into the lovefest, Mudd asked Teddy a seemingly innocuous question—a gentle lob over the net—a cream puff that surely the Lion of the Senate would finesse with such polished verve, such eloquent orotundity, that hearts across America would be magnetized and drawn once again to the loadstone of the Kennedy mystique.

What could possibly go wrong?

The fatal question was: “Why do you want to be president?” And for asking that question, Mudd saw his career nosedive even as he was officially excommunicated from the Kennedy compound as a traitor to the cause. The problem—of course—was not the question. Poor Mudd could never have supposed it would give Ted a moment’s pause, let alone discomfit his candidacy. The problem, as always, was Ted.

Former LIFE magazine reporter, Chris Whipple, put it best when he wrote, “what followed [Mudd’s question] was stunning: a hesitant, rambling and incoherent nonanswer; it seemed to go on forever without arriving anywhere.” Alarmed, Mudd tried to steer the conversation elsewhere, but Ted was too dazed to follow, mumbling still more inaccessible gibberish. Thus, with his shot at the presidency hovering nearly within grasp, Teddy self-destructed once again, this time before a mass audience of Americans suddenly cognizant that, as Whipple put it. “on the simple question that would define him and his political destiny, Kennedy had no clue.”

“Ummmm….” Ted, live on CBS, having no clue.

Samuel Johnson’s Dog….

So, time now to justify our new rating system, zero to four “paws up.” We feel obliged to award three out of four upraised paws to Chappaquiddick, despite all our complaints, with the understanding that two of those paws are for cinematic achievement, the third being more in keeping with those participation trophies handed out nowadays in kids’ sports where no score is kept and children are rewarded for just showing up. After all, from a purely pragmatic point of view, the selling, casting, filming, and marketing, even in 2018, of a film about Chappaquiddick, cannot have been easy.

Our resolute artistic standards would normally prohibit us from tempering our criticisms of any film based on whatever generative necessities obliged its deficiencies. Undoubtedly, many creative disputes broke out in pursuit of a finished product that could run the gamut of axes poised to silence film projects offensive to the establishment. Byron Allen, the CEO of Entertainment Studios and the executive producer of Chappaquiddick, is on record declaring that “some very powerful people…tried to put pressure on me not to release this movie,” and we have no difficulty believing him.  So, what emerged was a compromised exposition, hobbled in ways that earned our displeasure, even if necessary to the film’s survival.  On this account, we awarded Chappaquiddick one extra dog paw for the same reason that Samuel Johnson praised a performing dog taught to walk on its hind legs. It’s not that the thing is done particularly well, Johnson told Boswell, but rather that it is done at all. 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s