Friday, 18 May 2018

CHAPPAQUIDDICK : Tuesday 15th May 2018.

'CHAPPAQUIDDICK' which I saw this week is an American drama film based on the real life events surrounding the 1969 Chappaquiddick Incident. Directed by John Curran whose most recent Directorial outing was the 2013 Robyn Davidson Western Australian adapted story 'Tracks' with Mia Wasikowska, he here Directs this account of the true story which is described as 'a single-vehicle car accident that occurred on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, on Friday, July 18, 1969. The late night accident was caused by Senator Ted Kennedy's negligence, and resulted in the death of his 28-year-old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside the vehicle'. Further it states that 'according to his testimony, Kennedy accidentally drove his car off the one-lane bridge and into a tidal channel. He swam free, left the scene, and did not report the accident to the police for ten hours; Kopechne died inside the fully submerged car. The next day, the car with Kopechne's body inside was recovered by a diver, minutes before Kennedy reported the accident to local authorities. Kennedy pleaded guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of a crash causing personal injury, and later received a two-month suspended jail sentence'. The film Premiered at TIFF last September, had its US release in early April, and went on general release in Australia last week, having so far grossed US$17M at the Box Office off the back of a US$14M Production Budget, and garnered generally positive Reviews along the way.

Through factual accounts, laid out in the inquest from the investigations in 1969, the film examines the mysterious events and subsequent fall out around the drowning of aspiring political strategist and Kennedy insider Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) after Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove his car off the infamous Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. It is July 18th 1969, coincidentally, just two days after the Apollo 11 took off for the Moon landing that saw Neil Armstrong step foot on the surface on 21st July.

The US Senator for Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy following a televised interview, calls his cousin (and his 'fixer') Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) to organise a number of hotel rooms on Martha's Vineyard for the affectionately named 'Bolier Room Girls' (a team of female staff members who worked in Senator Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 Presidential campaign, and who were now in turn loyal to Ted's campaign). Ted Kennedy drives by car and short ferry boat crossing to Chappaquiddick Island where he teams up with Joe and Attorney General Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) for a yacht race, in which he comes in ninth place due to a misguided tack. After the race he goes to a beach house with Joe, Paul, the Boiler Room Girls, one of whom is Mary Jo Kopechne, and various other friends and staffers for dinner and drinks.

Kennedy later leaves the party with Mary Jo driving a 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88. After a brief stop under the stars to chat about the legacy of the Kennedy clan and the expectations he must live up to, he attempted to cross the Dike Bridge (which did not have any safety railings at the time). Kennedy lost control of his vehicle on a blind bend approaching the bridge and crashed in to the Poucha Pond inlet, which was a tidal channel on Chappaquiddick Island. Kennedy escaped from the overturned vehicle, and, by his own account, dived below the surface several times, attempting without success to reach and rescue Kopechne. Ultimately, he swam to shore and left the scene, with Kopechne still trapped inside the vehicle gasping for air and unable to get out of the upturned vehicle.

Soaked through, he walks back to the beach house, and speaks in private with Joe and Paul, saying that his Presidential campaign has just ended. They drive to the scene of the accident and both dive in and try in vain to recover Mary Jo, but to no avail, with Kennedy looking on, distraught, from the bridge. Joe and Paul commandeer a row boat tied up nearby and ferry Kennedy across the water to nearby Edgartown insisting that he turn himself into the Police immediately. Instead, upon arrival back on the mainland, he heads to his hotel room, where he washes, suits up and calls his father Joe Kennedy Snr. (Bruce Dern) who is in very ill health and explains what just happened. Barely able to speak having suffered a stroke, Joe mutters one word down the phone to his son - 'alibi'! He wanders around making sure he is seen by another hotel guest at 2:20am and then retires to his room where he attempts to sleep. The next morning, the vehicle is discovered where it landed by a father and son out on an early morning fishing trip off the bridge. They alert the police straight away who arrive within minutes.

The local Chief of Police and the Fire Department recover Kopechne's body from the vehicle, and quickly discover that the car is registered to Ted Kennedy. Joe and Paul come to the realisation that Ted has not yet turned himself in, and further insist that he must do so. Agreeing, albeit somewhat reluctantly, Kennedy makes a call from a private pay phone where no one can listen in, or overhear, to mobilise his legal team and then he and Paul go to the Edgartown Police Department, and wait for the return of Police Chief Arena (John Fiore).

After reading a prepared statement to Chief Arena which he asks not be released to the already awaiting Press, Kennedy travels to the Kennedy Compound (a six acre waterfront property on Cape Cod along Nantucket Sound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts). There he meets with his wheelchair bound disabled father Joe who registers his disappointment with his son for bringing his family into disrepute.

Later Kennedy meets with his legal team headed up by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) who attempt to show Kennedy in a sympathetic light to gain national favour, despite some very questionable decisions by the Senator. Fortunately, the historic Moon landing is about to happen which is likely to deflect the national headlines away from the Chappaquiddick Incident buying the legal team much needed time to gather their thoughts and devise a PR plan to defuse the whole sorry matter.

Things however, soon backfire as a result of holes in Kennedy's written statement, it being leaked to the Press by an over zealous Police Chief, faux medical diagnosis, stating initially that Mary Jo was driving, and him choosing to wear a neck brace to Mary Jo's funeral in an attempt to retrieve some of his tarnished image - an act that he was much ridiculed for. Joe becomes increasingly frustrated and angered by Kennedy and his actions, believing that it lessens the death of Kopechne and has turned the whole issue into a circus. As Joe attempts to resign, Kennedy asks that he drafts his resignation speech which he intends to read out over a live national television broadcast later that night.

Finally, Joe can see that Kennedy is doing the right thing and agrees. The Kennedy's Presidential Advisor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) writes an apologetic speech for Kennedy concurrently, which the Senator decides to read over the television broadcast instead of Gargan's resignation speech. As the credits roll, we learn that a week following the incident, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of the accident and was given a suspended sentence of two months in jail, denying that he was driving whilst under the influence of alcohol and that there was any impropriety between he and Kopechne. We further learn that he did not run for President in 1972 or 1976, but did run in 1980 in which he was defeated. He would later go on to serve in the US Senate up until the time of death in 2009 having begun his political career in 1962.

This film leaves you exiting the movie theatre with more questions than it answered, but nonetheless it is an intriguing story than moves along at a sober pace as it explores the hours and days immediately following this tragedy, and the at times farcical manner in which Kennedy tries to deal with it. Jason Clarke's central role as the troubled, emotional, battling with his conflicted conscience Senator Kennedy as his political aspirations gradually implode, is first rate and a convincing nuanced performance. As this incident occurred 48 years ago now, I would doubt that anyone under the age of 35 at least would have a clue about Chappaquiddick and what happened on that fateful night in 1969, especially given the overshadowing Moon landing event. So in this respect this history lesson is one that deservedly needs to be told, even though there may be a sprinkling of Hollywood poetic license wrapped up in this cautionary tale of how the power of privilege and entitlement can so easily outweigh tragedy and loss. A little more of Mary Jo's back story would have served the film well, given that her untimely death is the reason, albeit a tragic one, for the whole unfortunate series of events, and whilst Kate Mara's screen time is well delivered, more would have been beneficial in fleshing out her history as a Boiler Room Girl perhaps. Worth seeing for sure, and not necessarily on the big screen, but for a slow burning based on a true event story of the much troubled yet highly regarded Kennedy family, on which much has been written, filmed and speculated over the years, you can't go far wrong with this solid well scripted, attention to detail, thought provoking offering.

This film merits three claps of the clapperboard, from a potential five.

-Steve, at Odeon Online-

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