Welcome to Now Available, where we’ll give you a quick review of a film we didn’t cover when it was released in theaters that’s releasing for home viewing this week, along with a list of everything else and where you can see our coverage on it.
Late on July 18, 1969, a vehicle driven by Senator Ted Kennedy swerved off of a bridge, landing on its roof in Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. While Senator Kennedy was able to get out of the vehicle and safely make it to shore, his passenger, the 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne, died in the vehicle. Kennedy fled the scene of the accident and didn’t report it for over 9 hours. Due to conflicting accounts over the years by Kennedy and his associates who were were with him both in the hours before and after the accident, as well as coroner reports that indicated Kopechne died of suffocation, not drowning, have led to much speculation over the past 49 years about what actually happened that night. Did the accident happen as described by its only survivor? If so, why did he wait so long to report it? Were Kennedy’s actions properly dealt with or was this a case where the influence wielded by one of the United States’ most powerful families allowed justice to be undermined?
John Curran’s Chappaquiddick efforts to retell this murky story in a way that focuses on established facts to show the social and political ramifications of the incident while responsibly filling in some of the holes in the official version of the story. Jason Clarke leads an impressive cast as Kennedy, proving to be more than up to the task of transforming himself into the “Lion of the Senate.” Most everyone has a generic Kennedy impression somewhere in their repertoire, but Clarke surpasses mere imitation by playing the character as a man weighed down by his perceived responsibility to be who his father expects him to be as the only surviving Kennedy son following the assassination of his brother Robert just a month prior to the incident. His brother John’s shadow also looms large in the film, as much of the background noise is of televisions and radios tuned in to hear about Apollo 11’s journey to the moon, an endeavor fiercely supported by the late president that occurred on the same weekend as the accident. Ed Helms gives a rare but capable dramatic performance as Joseph Gargan, the cousin to Kennedy who became the estranged from the family as a result of the incident. Gargan is the conscience of the film and most of the blanks filled in on the story are consistent with the real life Gargan’s recollections of the incident in the 1988 book Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up by Leo Demore. Jim Gaffigan gives a surprisingly balanced performance as Kennedy family friend and Massachusetts District Attorney Paul F. Markham, a man burdened by his loyalty to the Kennedy’s as he goes about the icky business of effectively spinning the death of a young woman in a way that would salvage a promising political career. Curran’s direction and the screenplay are tight, giving the film an even pace and the feel of a thriller. I’m always impressed when a director is able to make a well-known event feel like anything could happen, and Curran is able to accomplish that here. It’s a well balanced film that avoids promoting salacious conspiracy theories but doesn’t paint a flattering picture of the senator either.
Overall Chappaquiddick is an impressive film buoyed by a dynamite lead performance by Clarke. It’s definitely worth the price of a Redbox. It’s probably even still worth it if you forget to return it for a day or two.
Also available this week:
The Leisure Seeker
Lean on Pete