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PFF 26: Chappaquiddick


“What’s it like, walking in that shadow?”

“Chappaquiddick” is the worst type of film. It is lacks virtue, merit, purpose, innovation, or impact. It does not lack polish, or star power, which are applied to secondary characters so as to reinforce the complete lack of virulence where the film’s heart should be. It is a film which ultimately has no identity or point beyond being a polished historical dramatization and Oscar bait.

Were it a less deftly produced film, it may be a bad film, one which would fade obscurely into that good night. Instead, as a vanilla prestige film, it will strut before a crowd of critics and cronies like a lesser giant imitating real men.

So, don’t see this one. Save $8, save two hours.

Now, 600 more words.

“Chappaquiddick” is, in brief, the story of a fatal car crash involving then-Senator Ted Kennedy and a former campaign staffer. It recounts the after-math, both political and personal, of the events, and depicts to some degree how a mythic history is sculpted. Directed by John Curran (of no house worth mentioning), starring Jason Clarke as Kennedy (id.), the film follows the senator as he struggles with his father’s disappointment, his brother’s glowing legacy, his political ambitions, and the political machine of the Democratic Party.

‘Struggles’ may be too strong a word. Clarke as Kennedy poses as a slow-witted manchild who is easily swayed by the last most recent person to disapprove of him. In this depiction we would have an interesting character portrait, if they were not whiplashingly juxtaposed with Kennedy preening and smugly dismissing any effect which would lead us to pity or sympathize with him. Better acting, may have accomplished more. James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, to point to the paragon, had a way of communicating an internal struggles within a beast of a man. Clarke slumps his shoulders and has brunch.

Clark’s most demanding scenes involve a pair of “why don’t you love me Daddy” speeches which are so cloyingly predictable and ham-scripted that we can’t be certain if Kennedy is intended to serve as an uninspired schmuck, if it is a larger commentary on Kennedy’s need to do what’s expected of him, or if it is intended as sincere. And this presents the most challenging aspect of the work, identifying which lack of nuance it has adapted.

The film at times seems a farce, with the ‘Kennedy machine’ depicted as amusingly lock-step besuited men who provide comic smarm. Perhaps John Curran was too deep to remember that Mary Jo Kopechne was a real person, who died and was dragged through the mire of political games and machinations. This alone would make the farcian tone leave an ashen taste. More on this in a moment. But ‘comic overtones’ surrounding…deadeye long walks in wet shoes and stern looks…to what end, but lightening the mood via the most conventional and precedented tropes?

The film’s most admirable performance comes from the lone sympathetic character, Ed Helms as Kennedy confidante and fixer Joe Gargan. Gargan serves as the whipping dog and moral compass, and ultimately resigns himself to abject subjugation in the film’s closing scene. Though typically distinguished as a comic actor, Helms manages to accomplish a few scenes of actual visual acting.

Kate Mara (fittingly of House of Cards fame) is briefly excellent as she drowns, but then she has drowned, and that’s that. This film wastes her talent, which is fitting in a meta-cinematic way if you’re into the macabre. Beth Petrou is excellent as a grim-faced Ann Gargan, Bruce Dern serves well as a set-prop of Kennedy senior.

Otherwise, the remainder of the cast serves as undeveloped and unengaging pieces for Clarke as Kennedy to goggle at. The music is reminiscent of every sad moment from TV, and the visuals are unchallenging and uninspired.  The best descriptor of the production value for this film would be ‘competent.’

Most grievously, The film fails to commit to either comedy or tragedy, and the lone consistently present atmosphere is History. Opposite of Kennedy’s farce is the moon-landing, which every character save Ted sees as a triumph for personal or political reasons (and this is perhaps the most interesting scene in the movie, and the only two minutes worth decoding).  We are reminded over and over again that the event in Chappaquiddick are under the spectre of History, just as Kennedy is in his brothers’ shadows. In defter hands the film could serve as a condemning juxtaposition of one Kennedy’s “Why do we do great things” against another’s “how can we accomplish smarmy things?” But although this thematic dialogue is served up, Curran makes no effort to follow-through or even offer thematic commentary.

And what we’re left with is an unvibrant depiction of a tragic event, of which the most interesting statement “Chappaquiddick” offers is that smarmy men perhaps managed to make it only a footnote in history.

IF this film were garbage, we’d throw it away. But it cost too much, has too much Attached to it, and it will be presented as Monumental despite its own best efforts (again, some meta-irony). Indie-wire has already floated the words “Best Actor,” and other Hollywood News sites are eager to discuss it as an “award contender.”

Not this year, though. Recent news points that the film’s November release has been pushed to next April so as to not ‘compete’ against the studio’s other contenders. A more pragmatic view might be that the distributors are well aware that now is not the time and place to usher out a movie whose primary plot point is how a smug crew of manipulators manage to diminish and dismiss a woman’s tragic death.

But “Chappaquiddick” isn’t garbage, and it won’t go away. It’s…lazy public space art. That, when it does get released, will obstinately float on the praises of those obligated to provide them. It will take up space, say nothing, inspire nothing, represent no statement, and smile ham-facedly while doing so.

And that is why this film is the worst type of movie. 

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