Ponderous Tone, Pace Sinks "Chappaquiddick"
John Cullen’s Chappaquiddick is a film that’s long overdue. This recounting of the tragic death of Mary Jo Kopechne and Senator Ted Kennedy’s involvement in it couldn’t be more timely, what with today’s constant manipulation of the media by the powers-that-be. The filmmaker covers all of the familiar points of this case in a workman-like, albeit cursory manner that manages to still prove intriguing despite Cullen’s ponderous pace and heavy-handed approach. No, this material is so damn interesting even a misguided approach can’t make it boring though in the end, the result suggests a more meaningful, fuller telling of this story was possible.
Covering the week of July 18 – 25th, 1969, the film offers a behind-the-scenes look at the machinations employed by the Kennedy family and their highly paid lackeys to, at the most, salvage the senator’s career and, at the least, keep him out of jail. That they were able to do both shows just how influential they were as the facts surrounding the case were damning.
On the evening of the 18th, Senator Kennedy (a very good Jason Clarke) left a party being held at a cottage on Chappaquiddick Island with Kopechne, a young woman who had worked on his brother Robert’s presidential campaign. Soon after, the car they were in plunged into a nearby lake; Kennedy escaped and swan to safety, while Kopechne drowned sometime later that night. The senator left the scene of the accident and did not report the accident until the next morning, suspicious behavior that suggested more was afoot than a simple accident.
The script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan employs its fair share of conjecture in filling in the gaps between what the public saw and what occurred behind closed doors. We see Kennedy drinking heavily the night of the incident – something he denied occurred, as well as his father’s cronies, Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), and Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols) among others, calling in favors, making promises and finessing the press, all to try and get ahead of the story as well as produce the proper spin to salvage Kennedy’s reputation. All of this is the most fascinating part of the film and while a boatload of denials would surely be issued regarding this, if any of the key players were still alive, it all has a ring of truth to it.
The compelling nature of the story makes Cullen’s approach so frustrating. Moments shown in slow motion to underscore the gravity of events, ominous music by composer Garth Stevenson and prolonged dramatic pauses call attention to serious moments that simply aren’t needed. These devices do nothing but slow the film down and ultimate border of parody, they occur so frequently. Unfortunately, Cullen doesn’t get out of his own way and the result is a movie that’s sorely lacking where fidelity and tact are concerned.
No, a more in-depth look, along the lines of the true-life Fox mini-series American Crime Story would be better suited to cover the nuances of this story and would allow a more thorough approach that would be far more compelling. As it is, Chappaquiddick sinks under the weight of its misguided approach.