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The absent truths of ‘Chappaquiddick’

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Truth is a funny thing.

Some people view it as an absolute. Others regard it as a concept with some flexibility. And once you’re a deviation or two away from the center, things get even murkier. There’s what happened and then there’s the story about what happened. Sometimes, the two are close to the same. More often, they’re not.

In July of 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a single-car accident that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a young woman who worked on Kennedy’s brother Bobby’s Presidential campaign. That’s what we know. The details surrounding that accident remain unclear; there are a number of inconsistencies in Kennedy’s account, but ultimately, he was the only one who truly knew what happened that night.

“Chappaquiddick,” the dramatization of the incident and the aftermath in the days that followed, is yet another example of the “based on a true story” film that doesn’t really bother to explore its subject with any depth, content to simply reel off story beats without worrying about what they might actually mean to the whole. That absence of real insight leaves the film bland and rather dull, despite some game efforts from the team involved.

Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke, “Winchester”) is hosting a party on Chappaquiddick Island on Martha’s Vineyard on July 18, 1969. It’s the weekend of the moon landing – the culmination of his brother’s grand plan. Among the guests are Kennedy’s cousin and informal fixer Joe Gargan (Ed Helms, “Father Figures”) and his friend Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan, “Chuck”); also invited are half-a-dozen young women – known as the Boiler Room Girls – who helped on Robert Kennedy’s campaign in 1968.

At one point late in the evening, Kennedy and one of the Boiler Room Girls – Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara, “Meagan Leavey”) – leave the party and start driving (and drinking) their way around the island. When Kennedy sees a police car, he gets spooked and starts driving at an unsafe speed. He fails to make a turn and winds up going off a bridge – the car winds up upside down in a pond. Kennedy is able to extricate himself, but Mary Jo is not.

He leaves her.

Kennedy walks back to the party and tells Gargan and Markham what happened. After a too-little-too-late effort to help Mary Jo, Kennedy convinces them to help him get back to his hotel after he promises to report the accident. They do, he doesn’t.

What follows is what would be a comedy of errors if it weren’t so sad. The car is discovered. Teddy tells one story, then another. He asks his stroke-stricken but still sharp father Joe (Bruce Dern, “Our Souls at Night”) for advice; Joe responds by assembling a team of political operatives – led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown, “Stronger”) – ready to contain the fallout and control the narrative. But Teddy can’t get out of his own way, insisting on saying and doing things that muddle and complicate both the story and the actual truth.

Even as the moon landing captures American imaginations, Teddy Kennedy is making America question the competence of its leaders. And lost in it all is the death of a bright, promising young woman.

“Chappaquiddick” plays like it maybe wanted to be a hit job, but didn’t have the stomach to really follow through. There’s no question that Teddy Kennedy is presented as overly entitled and a bit stupid, but he reads as more bumbling than calculating; the film almost gives him a pass simply because he’s dumb. Generating narrative tension is already tough when your audience knows at least some of the story ahead of time; when you sand the edges off your characters on top of that, you’re going to have a boring movie.

Which “Chappaquiddick” unfortunately is.

It’s competently made, though director John Curran certainly isn’t going to wow anyone. Still, it’s a nice enough look. The production design captures the late-60s vibe nicely. Structurally, it’s fine, even if the components of that structure never manage to be all that interesting.

Clarke is actually strong in the lead role. There’s a certain inherent Kennedy-ness that is only intermittently captured by actors playing them; Clarke gets it. It’s a fine performance that one wishes had gotten to fit into a better, more interesting movie. Helms and Gaffigan are both excellent; they’re among the relatively small number of comedic performers who also offer a flair for the dramatic. Mara does her best, but the movie never really gives us much about Mary Jo; she’s more plot point than actual person, though to be clear, that’s not Mara’s fault. And Dern steals a couple of scenes as Joe Kennedy – he’s got the most gravitas of anyone in the movie.

“Chappaquiddick” is a dramatization of one version of the truth. It’s twice removed from what actually happened and never seems really willing to commit even to conveying that. It’s a sad moment in our history that isn’t particularly well-remembered.

Unfortunately, this movie isn’t going to be either.

[2 out of 5]

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