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“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.

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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