CHAPPAQUIDDICK (At the Multiplex: April, 2018)

Chappaquiddick (2017)
D. John Curran

It’s almost fair to ask whether Hollywood is growing a pair or merely pulling a face.

A few months back, they took on the CIA. Now–a mere eight years after he died and barely less than half-a-century after the event that made him famous for something besides being Jack and Bobby’s brother–the burning issue of Ted Kennedy’s behavior in the incident that got a small island in a toney part of Massachusetts its own Wikipedia page and a pass on spell check has been turned into a more-than-reasonably honest look at what, these days, we call the Swamp, or the Deep State.

Aka: The American Political System.

About time.

Of course, it’s  a lot safer to take these things on at a distance. We’re now decades into the Frozen Silence for which the lives of wretched men like Barry Seal and Ted Kennedy did so much to grease the skids.

But I hold this truth to be self-evident: It’s better than nothing.

The first thing to note about Chappaquiddick is that, even now, nobody was so bold as to cast a movie star in the lead or any other part. Hey, for Jackie, we can get Natalie Portman.

For Barry Seal–Barry Freakin’ Seal!–we can get Ton Freakin’ Cruise.

For Ted’s little adventure?

Will Ed Helms do?

Yes, he’ll do. Nicely in fact. At least in the period depicted–the car crash that killed campaign volunteer Mary Jo Kopechne and the pertinent events just before and after–Ted Kennedy was a kind of anonymous blob. Whatever one thought about his doomed older brothers, there was no denying they had the charisma to create a disturbance in the force of history. Following, as he did, their combustible mix of war heroism (Joe and Jack), presidential ambition (Joe, Jack and Bobby) all around ball busting (Bobby), and representation of lost dreams (Jack and Bobby), it would have taken a far stronger person than Ted Kennedy (or likely you or me) to stand on his own two feet, let alone rise above the circumstances.

For capturing that forlorn quality, Ed Helms’ performance could hardly be beat. Whatever star quality the youngest Kennedy brother had was reflected glory. Nothing manifests that so completely as a good actor who doesn’t quite have “it” himself.

The question worth asking about such a figure, in fiction or fact, is whether things might have been different.

Of course, the easy way out is an alternative universe where Jack and/or Bobby, or even the Hitler-loving Joe Jr., lived long enough to take the heat off him. In that case, his being a drunken lech who made enough friends in the Senate to get his name on some important legislation (most of it “bipartisan” and therefore pro forma back-slapped and approved by the Swamp he came so swiftly and fully to exemplify–the same Swamp Jack had threatened to destroy and Bobby had at least threatened to expose).

That not being available the movie digs into what’s left. You know: History. Facts. That sort of thing.

As Helms plays him, the bonhomme the youngest Kennedy brother developed over time–so obviously fake his closest friends probably never knew whether to laugh or vomit–is, at best, a nascent, still-developing quality, one of many the man who ran his car off a bridge and left its other occupant to suffocate and drown would develop in order to live with himself, keep besotted voters sending him back to the Senate, term after term, and, most crucially in the context of the movie, maintain himself as a viable “last chance” for the Kennedys to have a true political dynasty of their own instead of serving as a role model for various Bushes and Clintons.

We know now, how it all worked out. But, as Helms plays him, the Ted Kennedy of this movie, the one reeling out of the water and leaving the crucial minutes when Kopechne gasped out the last twenty minutes of her life a black hole, doesn’t quite know.

Mind you, he has his suspicions.

He can feel it–his being doomed to life as the second-rater he suspected he was anyway.

He can feel all of it, every variation: The relief of having both blown his chance and removed his burden. The shame of having shown himself–the brother of war heroes–a craven coward in every respect imaginable. The wonder at realizing he might–just might–get out of this unscathed. The high that comes from being able to throw his weight around (isn’t this sort of thing what a family name and a seven-figure bank account are for, after all?) and the confidence that begins to reassert itself when that weight falls just so–and on everyone from the local cops to the national press–to drag the hopes and dreams he’s neither man enough to fulfill or strong enough to forget back onto the table. And, finally, the realization that his father (as played by Bruce Dern, easily the biggest name in the cast, a Joe Kennedy Sr. paralyzed by a stroke, barely able to croak a word and corrosive evil personified) considers him a mental midget who must be led by the hand and never let out of anyone’s sight.

Helms gets all of that and the script is sharp enough–both as entertainment and insight into the culture of sycophancy as it exists when the real demi-gods are no longer around to suck up to–that it would probably carry a lesser performance anyway.

Helms and Dern stand out, then. But everything else is plenty good enough to make you wish someone had possessed the guts to make this movie in 1977, right after All the President’s Men. With movie stars. Post mortems this honest are useful and good from any distance. But, at such a late date, even this fine movie is small justice for Mary Jo Kopechne–and even smaller for the nation that the kind of men who hover over Ted Kennedy’s shoulder have spent the intervening decades running off the rails, hiding in such plain view that only now can Hollywood, brave Hollywood, acknowledge their existence.

PAST AS NOT SO OBVIOUS PRELUDE (Noir, Noir, Noir: Second Feature)

All the President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan Pakula

allpresidentcover2I’m not sure how many people have viewed the straightforward screen adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of how they broke open the Watergate scandal that felled Richard Nixon as noir (as opposed noir-ish, which can be stretched to include almost anything that isn’t an MGM musical). From that contemporary Czech poster above, I’d say the commies, at least, had a notion.

But if noir is defined by a film’s relationship to, as Edmund Wilson might have put it, the specifically American Jitters, then All the President’s Men isn’t just noir but near-definitive. If it happens to also be quite faithful to history, as no one has ever credibly denied, then it’s all the more remarkable.

It’s worth remembering that noir at its best is never invested in civilization. Most of the black-and-white killer-dillers from the classic period (Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, The Asphalt Jungle) are fundamentally pre-civilizational, man stripped bare, deprived of any but the basest aspirations (lust, greed, survival, revenge). That’s why the ones that worked at all worked extremely well, and also why even the very best of them tended to sell out at the end. They didn’t always, or often, end happily, but they nearly always ended romantically. How else to cut the darkness?

On that score, All the President’s Men has a seemingly insurmountable problem. The romance seems built in. Heroic journalists trying to bring down the king yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

But, given the source and the times that produced both the history and the movie, no amount of star power or studio gloss could keep it from being ultra-realistic, too. Somebody realized that and doubled down. Almost no film from the ultra-realistic seventies feels as much like a period documentary as this one, and that’s despite the presence of heavy duty stars and top flight character actors, the kind with personas attached, popping up throughout.

You could argue (I wouldn’t), that Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford or Jason Robards have been better elsewhere, but, despite the near-ubiquitous presence of their real-life counterparts (Bernstein, Woodward and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, respectively) in our lives for four decades running (even Bradlee’s death only slowed him down a little), the actors still seem more like those men than they’ve ever seemed liked themselves. I see Carl Bernstein on CNN, bloviating on yet another topic he clearly can’t be bothered to know anything about, and all I think is “Too bad he’s not really Dustin Hoffman.” I see Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men and all I think is “too bad he not really Carl Bernstein.”

And that’s the easy one…the one who probably didn’t work for the CIA.

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None of which makes ATPM either great or noir. It wasn’t really meant to be great, I don’t think, except maybe in the way earlier classy commercial properties like The Ten Commandments or My Fair Lady were. Great in the grand old Hollywood style of radiating a certain stiff-necked significance, a film the whole family should see.

And I certainly don’t think it was meant to be noir.

But put a bunch of talented people together with an indelible moment and you never know what might happen.

For one thing, it might actually work on the “significance'”level, as ATPM did and does.

But then it might also, over time, leap the trace.

As ATPM certainly is doing now, in this turbulent month when, on a hunch, I left Medium Cool and A Face in the Crowd to the liberal twitter crowd and pulled this off the shelf instead.

Dutifully or not, ATPM gives us a worm’s eye view of the process of catching rats in high places. Consciously or not, its obvious message is that the only people really qualified to do the job are other rats.

You don’t need to buy Ben Bradlee as a lifelong CIA asset–or someone who would have snuffed the story of the century in the cradle if it had been likely to bring down somebody he liked–to get that from the movie.

And that’s what makes it great.

And that’s what makes it noir.

Maybe just because the heroes involved were more transparent than they knew, even in the moment (forget the long aftermath), it’s possible to be grateful for what Woodward/Redford, Bernstein/Hoffman and Bradlee/Robards did without liking them even a little bit. Against all odds, the movie resists heroism. It just sets you down in soulless “news rooms,” shadowy parking garages, wet city streets, sunlit suburbs, some “ratfucker’s”  apartment….and then lets you work out the moral logistics for yourself.

Sure, Woodward/Redfern occasionally shows a touch of remorse or honesty or self-reflection–or at least seems to. But, real or faked, it never lasts. You can never be sure that these things, too, aren’t calculated as a price well worth what was then merely a potential payoff.

Brave? Prescient? Pure Fluke?

Who knows?

But as we enter our post-civilizational phase, where no secret is so dark it could ever possibly bring anybody down (what Donald Trump really meant when he said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t make any difference)–a phase that surely began when the half of the “establishment” that had driven Nixon from office for the one truly unpardonable sin of attacking them, decided early retirement was punishment enough–it feels odd to watch a film that captured that moment a little too perfectly. It comes uncomfortably close to proving noir‘s unspoken pre- and post-civilizational premise: The darkness is all there is.

Ever.

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(NOTE: As I  pretty much always do, I watched All the President’s Men in tandem with Dick, Andrew Fleming’s 1999 duck-and-cover satire of same. I was reminded, yet again, that even the most brilliant satire runs up against limits. I was also reminded, yet again, that those limits can be transcended if you manage to weave “You’re So Vain” into a realistic depiction (beautifully played by an up-until-that-very-moment-gloriously-over-the-top Dan Hedaya) of Nixon departing the White House while Betsy and Arlene cut up some American flags which they intend to put to very good use. I’ll probably have more to say about Dick, which also happens to be one of the two or three greatest movies about the seventies, a decade that arguably could only be understood satirically, some other time, but for those interested, this lovely reminiscence is highly recommended, not least because it reveals how disastrously close “You’re So Vain” came to being….something else!)