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'Chappaquiddick' review: Selling a tragedy, the Kennedy way

A political biopic’s most difficult target lies in the elusive circle above character assassination and below hagiography. “Chappaquiddick” misses that target. But it’s a fairly intriguing mixture of strengths and weaknesses, a case of a sharp cast and a careful director toning up a script best described as “a good try.”

The film speculates on what happened in the wee hours of July 18, 1969, involving Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, better known as Ted, or Teddy, and Mary Jo Kopechne, a former secretary of Kennedy’s late brother, Robert. The facts: The car driven by Kennedy plunged into the water off a pier on Chappaquiddick Island, near Martha’s Vineyard. Kopechne drowned; Kennedy lived, though he didn’t inform police until the next day.

The screenplay focuses on how Kennedy managed to salvage a political career after the fatal incident, even if that career didn’t include the presidency. This is a sausage-making procedural; “Chappaquiddick” allows plenty of leeway for seasoned character actors, such as Clancy Brown (who plays a wily, ruthless Robert McNamara) and Taylor Nichols (genial, soul-weary Ted Sorensen), to bring various fixers and operatives to life. The hapless puppet, Teddy, becomes a plaything in their clever hands.

It’s certainly watchable, though five minutes into director John Curran’s picture, the atmospheric accumulation of dread, moral failing and sinister cover-ups is pretty thick, and we’re not even through the executive producer credits. The script, in fact, is a first-time effort by two of the credited producers, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan.

The movie’s version of events does not implicate Kennedy and Kopechne in a sexual relationship. We don’t see Kennedy drinking as much as some have said he did, all that day and into the evening.

The film does, however, imagine Kopechne’s final seconds, or minutes, as gasping for air in the rapidly filling car underwater, while her date for the evening failed to rescue her, or even try very hard. (She recites the Lord’s Prayer before expiring.) When Teddy meets face-to-face with the fearsome, stroke-addled family patriarch, Joe (Bruce Dern, giving it 400 percent), the scenes devolve quickly into “you never loved me; I was the least of the Kennedy boys” cliches. As the man in the middle of the mess he made, Jason Clarke’s performance as Kennedy is extremely controlled, and artfully free of interpretive judgment. The material favors anything that makes this man, and this grimly pathetic self-made crisis, a blunt morality play.

Ed Helms plays the conscience of that play, the put-upon Joe Gargan; Jim Gaffigan portrays friend and confidant Paul Markham. Mara’s interpretation of Kopechne is that of a dedicated Kennedy acolyte, shaken to her core by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, uneasily drawn back into the family orbit.

“I spent my whole life chasing your dreams, for you,” Teddy bleats to his mutely admonishing father at one point in “Chappaquiddick.” The movie needs fewer moments made of tin like that, and a few more suggesting what Kennedy really might’ve been thinking, and feeling, in those hours after the fatal accident. The superhumanly durable appeal of the Kennedy clan and its attendant tragedies and losses remains a riddle, a paradox and a wellspring of guesswork. Curran’s film has its moments; he has made some very good work in the past, including “The Painted Veil” and “Tracks.” But the script’s guessing games don’t amount to much.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune


'Chappaquiddick' -- 2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking)

Running time: 1:41

Opens: Friday


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