The nation’s obsession with the Kennedys continues and continues to be amplified in the mirrored funhouse of films and television: feature films, television movies, miniseries, news programs, documentaries. I thought we’d finally hit a wall with Reelz’s 2011 airing of the The Kennedys miniseries that featured a star-turn by Katie Holmes as Jacqueline among its many delights. No. There was outsider Pablo Larraín’s horrific, avante-garde 2016 take on Jackie starring Natalie Portman from a brilliant, gruesome script by Noah Oppenheim that tore apart the heart and soul of America. Then Saffron Burrows appeared as Jackie Unveiled in a one-woman show earlier this year at the Wallis Annenberg Center of the Performing Arts. Rob Lowe even showed up as John in a 2013 National Geographic television movie, Killing Kennedy, based on the book of celebrity academia. The compulsion is twofold, of course, at least: several of its principals died prematurely, and in intolerable ways, cutting short the natural order of fame, which grows tiresome, until it rises to infamy; and, two, the association of royalty surrounding the reign of John and Jacqueline. Yet, another name comes to mind: Princess Diana, of Wales. We’ve been hit by nothing but a run of virtual royalty since Ronald and Nancy came to town, with one propping up the other as if he were going mad with syphilis. Who are these Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas, but our own royal families? Look at the attention thrown to the kids. Look at the address they preside at: our own Buckingham Palace, not 10 Downing Street. Even many of our Founding Fathers, who swore off monarchy for the freewheeling principles of the Enlightenment, were landholders presiding over vast estates and slaves. Perhaps President Obama’s most newsworthy event since his exile from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, even as its current tenant tears down much of what he tried to build, as if a spoiled child running amok with an axe chopping down trees in the forest outside his father’s estate, was an unveiling of his official portrait, along with the former First Lady’s. It’s as if we were in Florence at the turn of the 16th century. The current resident, who looks and behaves something like Henry VIII if he’d shaved every morning and lived another 15 years, brought his entire family with him; it’s as if the royal family has its own political reality show. Queen Mum just perished.
Where does that leave the little prince, Edward, who never made it to the throne like his second eldest brother, or wasn’t destined to, like his next? The “fat one,” as his character throws in the face of his father’s in Chappaquiddick. If so much of the lustre centered around them, this here is his moment to shine, isn’t it? In fact, Jack and Bobby aren’t even around; it’s the summer of 1969; everything is about to come to an end, if it hasn’t already. Edward (Jason Clarke, Winchester, Mudbound) is hosting a casual annual soirée off Martha’s Vineyard, and he strolls over to the beach to confirm the attendance of Boiler Room Girls Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara, My Days of Mercy, Meagan Leavey) and her companion, Rachel (Olivia Thirlby, Between Us, the upcoming Damascus Cover). The 28-year-old Kopechne, a former key Bobby Kennedy campaign strategist, is damaged from her former boss’s assassination, which to her seems to have occurred just yesterday and maybe a lifetime ago at the same time, and doesn’t think she’ll be able to muster a return to D.C. for Ted from her exile in locales like Denver and Jersey City. She will attend the party, however. Too bad for her.
After botching the turn with a lead in the regatta that day, which seems to foreshadow a glitch in his instincts, the host greets those assembled at the Chappaquiddick beach house with a welcoming assurance as to their inclusion in the Kennedy clan, most especially those lovely young Boiler Room Girls. The Kennedys are, after all, the only show in town, even if ticket sales are down, and while attendance is sparse, everyone seems to be there but Annette Funicello. The scene plays as if Ted were a British viceroy expressing similar sentiment to the Indian royal court and support staff. Later in the evening, a taciturn Edward retreats to a couch in a living room, pondering some deeply vexing puzzle, as if he were Usher thinking upon the ghastly, mortifying reappearance of his sister. He’s rescued by the modest Mary Jo, who appears ready to let go her wings, and the two go for a nighttime drive in Ted’s Oldsmobile, with the senator offering to drive. Intoxicated and with a rush of speed, like a frat boy trying to show off to a first college date, or a sailor on leave, Kennedy sends the Olds full bore on an unpaved back road, making a dashing beeline toward a rickety bridge crossing a placid waterway. The angle of the entry isn’t close, Mary Jo protests to no avail, as if Janet Leigh in a Hitchcock film, and the rest, as they say, is water under the… uh… history.
From there, the film goes into coverup mode. Kennedy enlists the help of slighted cousin and family lawyer Joseph Gargan (comedic actor Ed Helms, Father Figures, I Do…Until I Don’t), whom he calls “Joey,” and casual, informal Massachesetts AG Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan, Chuck, Staten Island Summer). The duo rush over to the bridge, disrobe, and dive in, to no avail; vehicles tend not to react to exit nor entry when submerged in a body of water. They implore Ted to report the accident—I’m not sure why they didn’t just do it themselves as Kennedy was vaguely not himself and anyway couldn’t be trusted to do so—but the senator instead retires to a bath of his own, apparently unaware of the cruel irony. The next morning, he takes over the office of Edgartown Police Chief Dominick Arena (John Flore, Patriot’s Day, Bleed for This), shuttering the blinds. It is here where Kennedy will, lo, shield himself from the preening eyes of the law, not to mention local townsfolk and news media. Chief Arena appears not too happily handcuffed, but delivers on a laughably negotiated plea agreement whose terms were initiated by Gargan that is extremely disrespectful toward the term “slap on the wrist”—it’s more like a kneel and a kiss, subsequent to a blessing.
Speaking of blessings, Edward assures his damaged but still demanding father, Joseph Sr. (who else but Bruce Dern), that he has the situation under control, though the presidency may, alas, be out of reach. A clearly dissatisfied Joe Sr., who receives his son like a deranged Pope a disappointing sinner, wheelchair bound and seemingly catatonic, snarls. Ted alights the following day to a pack of handlers assembled nonchalantly around the living room, led by loud and decisive Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown, Supercon, Thor: Ragnorak), fresh off his devastating and disingenuous handling of the Vietnam imbroglio. Nonetheless, the assertive World Bank president who occupies the room like a redwood can be trusted to pilot this Titanic as well, though he’s open to the ideas of others, just not the younger Kennedy’s. “We start with the truth, at least our version of it,” the senator declares to the cabal, whatever that means. He turns on my pal Joey after sleeping on Gargan’s impassioned insistence that “it is not about opportunity, but integrity.” Instead, the negligent senator puts his own reckoning in the hands of dependable personal speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols, 40 Nights, Bestseller) before a prime-time address to the nation that’s more about him than the nation, though with the Kennedys, the two were often intertwined.
The outrage from afar is muted; this is, after all, a pretty muted film. Perhaps it’s intentional that we don’t see much of the nation, but the nation as it’s refracted through Martha’s Vineyard, a graveyard of U.S. democracy. It’s a slow, downcast film, with tense atmospherics and a good dose of haunting music from Garth Stevenson (10,000 Saints, Tracks); it’s probably not for everyone. If the film is Edward’s, in large part, it’s Clarke’s. Beginning with a terrific provincial New England accent, the Australian, who’s used to playing big, really tones it down; it’s as if he’s performing underwater, something that can be said about the entire film, as presented by director John Curran (Tracks, Stone, The Painted Veil). Clarke—who I first noticed as the boisterous detective opposite Jennifer Beals on the nice, short-lived FOX drama The Chicago Code before Dick Wolf took hold of the city for his personal use—is particularly effective portraying his character’s perceived inert, emotional distance and isolation. The film suggests a romantic interest between Kennedy and Mary Jo, but Clarke plays it so close to the vest you barely notice, but for when he gets his hands on the wheel of the Oldsmobile. Here, Clarke’s Kennedy is not just the baby brother, a kid behind an adult façade, but there’s something unnatural in his restrained social interaction, something that might be traced to being born into privilege. Even when exhorting the goons in the personal crisis campaign, it’s as if he’s behind a sheet of translucent plastic. The film, written by first-team screenwriting duo Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan based on the Massachusetts inquest, implies Kennedy had Kopechne’s memory with him ceaselessly. One imagines her haunting him over many a late night in his empty, half-dark senate office over a drink or two; Poe wrote stories about less. If she did, we have no way of knowing. The senator kept it too close to the breast; the film’s psychological take on the man’s reserved exterior implies why.
In one pivotal scene, a room full of Kennedys joins the rest of the nation in gathering around a television set to cheer on Apollo 11’s steps on the moon just six days after Chappaquiddick and Kopechne’s earthly demise; Ted looks on at that moment with a glazed, glassy look, as if the nation’s glory is reflected in the eyes of his own downfall. It’s as if, for him, the American dream died right then and there. Once Richard Nixon swept by Hubert Humphrey six months after Bobby was shot to death and seven after Martin Luther King, Jr. into the White House and then by George McGovern four years later, it was as if the dream died for all of us, driven off a broken-down bridge into the deep down murky depths below. Only the monarch, and his ghastly chauffeur behind the wheel, and the monarchy, survived.
(Caution: Bridge approaching! Chappaquiddick continues in general theatrical release.)
UPDATE: The Kennedy chronicles continue: Bobby Kennedy for President, Netflix’s four-episode documentary series, premieres this Friday.
© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours