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.

JUST SO YOU KNOW…

This is not a political blog. I routinely insert political thoughts (and more occasionally, theological ones) into my regular writing because that’s the way I see life. As I said to a friend of mine when I started the blog: “You know me. Rock and roll is just a way of seeing the world.”

But since we now live in such interesting times, I’ve been revisiting my history of little personal political insights and what’s a blog for if not to share random thoughts that invade the mind, unbidden, now and again?

At the end, I might just talk myself into making a prediction about the direction of Donald Trump’s presidency. Before all that, you can check my track record.

From this, all else grows…

1974 (Age 13): Richard Nixon resigns from the presidency to avoid impeachment and conviction. He is pardoned by Gerald Ford. Me: “I bet there’s gonna be a lot of criminal presidents from now on.”

My logic: If Richard Nixon was as bad as everybody said he was–and everybody said it, even in my Nixon-supporting part of the world–and the penalty for whatever he did was early retirement, then it didn’t seem like much of a deterrence.

My track record: After Jimmy Carter, they all look like crooks to me. If only some of them look that way to you, you might want to open that other eye. Unless, of course, you’ve accepted ol’ Dick’s logic that it’s not criminal if the president does it!

1980 (Age 19): Campaigning for president, Ronald Reagan promises that he will increase spending, cut taxes and eliminate the budget deficit, which was then standing at a scandalous sixty-something billion dollars. Me: “I bet if he wins, we’re gonna have a whole lot more debt.”

My logic: Math.

My track record: Reagan won. By 1988, when he left office, the deficit stood at a hundred and eighty-something billion dollars and we had switched to a permanent credit economy which would allow us to borrow without limits and never have to pay it back. The deficit is now around twenty trillion. We rack up another sixty billion every week or two. Good going, 1980.

1984 (Age 23): At the Democratic National Convention, party nominee Walter Mondale uses his acceptance speech to capitulate (I always assumed it was his attempt at imitating Franklin Roosevelt in Firesign Theater’s “Nick Danger, Third Eye” bit). I decide I will not vote in the election. I also decide I will not vote in any future elections.

My logic: What’s the point if it doesn’t matter?

My track record: Mondale lost in a record landslide. I have voted in every election since. I’m not going to discuss who I voted for in any of those elections because it has not mattered.

1990 (Age 29): We invade Iraq. In the run-up up to the invasion, Christopher Hitchens, still lucid at that point, says if we invade it will be the start of a new hundred years’ war. Me: “That sounds about right.”

My logic: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to….yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.” Santayana. Smart guy.

My track record: We’ve entered the war’s 27th year. Christopher Hitchens, who began supporting the war around it’s twelfth year, lies a-moldering in his grave. The war goes on. A hundred years still sounds about right.

1990s (Age “sometime in my thirties”): Me, apropos of nothing: “Free people do not need a security state…”

My logic: “….Because security states exist to preserve themselves, not freedom.” Me in my thirties. Not Santayana, but not half bad.

My track record: Hard to tell. But I used to say: “Everything I really needed to know I learned from rock and roll.” Now I say: “Everything I really needed to know, I learned from Philip K. Dick novels.”

2001 (Age 40): On September 11, the World Trade Center is leveled by terrorists in hi-jacked planes. The Pentagon is attacked by another. Another goes down in a Pennsylvania field, prevented by the passengers from incinerating either the White House or the Capitol. George W. Bush responds by fleeing from Florida to Nebraska. Later, much later, after everyone has patted his hand and told him everything will be alright, he gives a speech to a joint session of congress. Then him and Tom Daschle (Remember him? No? Lucky you.) give each other a big ol’ bear hug to celebrate our victory. (As imitations of “Nick Danger, Third Eye” go, this was almost hallucinatory). Me, in an e-mail to a friend: “I hope we don’t need leaders in this fight, because we ain’t exactly got Churchill.” My friend tries to assure me it will be alright because the generals know what they are doing. I refuse to be comforted.

My logic: Wars are not won by men who return to Washington from Florida by way of Nebraska because Washington might be dangerous. You can be stupid and win a war. You can be a criminal and win a war. You can be a mama’s boy who, in Ann Richards’ immortal phrase, “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple” and win a war. You can’t be a coward.

My track record: Well, if we ever do win that war, it won’t be on the coward’s watch.

2004 (Age 43): John Kerry runs for president. He debates George W. Bush. Bush sends a batting practice fastball down the middle, saying that it sounded to him like if Kerry had been president (on the aforementioned 9/11), Saddam Hussein would still have been in power. Instead of saying “If I’d been president, Saddam would be in jail and Osama Bin Laden would be in the cell next to him,” Kerry gave a two-thousand word response that amounted to “Now that’s no necessarily so.” Me: “Goodbye.”

My logic: The coward or the pedant? Who cares.

My track record: John Kerry lost his election. Eventually he became Secretary of State and achieved his life’s goal of turning pedantry into an art form whilst the world burned.

2008 (Age 47): Barrack Obama is elected president. Me: “Interesting. And it’s really nice to check that ‘first African-American president’ box. But, in the midst of all this euphoria, I do wish I could see him.”

My logic: “He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land…” John Lennon: Smart guy.

My track record: Too soon to tell, but if a tide comes in, it does tend to wash away the castles you made of sand. And tides do usually come in.

2015 (Age 54): A couple of Beltway reporters kibitzing on Diane Rehm’s PBS show, spend a few minutes trying to one-up each other on just how impossible it will be for Donald Trump to win the Republican Nomination. Me: “If you think he has no chance, you’re crazy.”

My logic: “Call out the instigators, because there’s something in the air.”

Did I mention that, once upon a time, I learned everything I really needed to know from rock and roll?

My track record: Donald Trump will become president on January 20.

And so….

One factor, which peeked through the underbrush throughout the last year-and-a-half as Trump systematically (yes, systematically) ripped through everyone from Jeb Bush to Hillary Clinton to real power brokers like Megyn Kelly and Jeff Bezos, is that the Security State is not simply worried but frightened. Since the election the peepin’ and a hidin’ and the slippin’ and a slidin’ has become something close to full-blown warfare. Trump has made it abundantly clear that, on Jan. 20, he intends to become the third sitting president to take on the shadow government.

I have no prediction on how it will come out. It did not work out for John Kennedy or Jimmy Carter, whose respective penalties were death and political humiliation.* The Security State is, on one sense, more powerful than ever. Its tentacles gained strength and length by leaps under Bush the Younger and leaps and bounds under Obama. But it is not the top-down machinery that took down JFK (allegedly) and Carter (allegedly**). Without Cold War clarity, there is deep consensus about needs (more power), but much confusion about goals (to what specific end?). Battling cave-dwellers has simply not been as simple or as satisfying as taking on the old Evil Empire. That, plus the sheer size and scope of its expansion has left the Leviathan dazed and weakened at the moment when it will have to face its greatest threat.

So whether they can defeat a determined Trump is an open question and I have no feel in my stomach’s empty pit for how it will come out.

Neither do I have any feel for how Trump would handle either victory or defeat. The great danger–one which is barely hinted at in all the incoherent babbling about fascism and the like–is that Trump will be both willing and able (and at this point it would be far safer, if that’s the right word, to bet against his will than his ability) to replace the praetorian guard we’ve long allowed, in true fascist style, to build around state security, with one built around a cult of personality, one which could presumably be transferred with little fuss to his handsome, hungry children. I will only say that, should he turn in that direction, there will be precious little to stop him and all who had faith in an ever-deteriorating system–me included, as I did keep “voting”–will share the blame.

I wish there was a song for that.

*Eisenhower doesn’t count, as his famous warning about the military industrial complex, while virtuous, was issued on the way out the door. Of course he was right. But that’s like dissing your tyrannical boss at your retirement ceremony.

**There is voluminous literature on the Kennedy assassination, too much to take in really. My best take on all that is here.

There is precious little literature on Carter’s demise and I’m not even up on what does exist. But I can pass along this anecdote.

Back in the early 80’s my dad was a home missionary for the Southern Baptist Convention. One of his duties was to visit local conventions around the country and trade ideas for effective mission work. That put him on kind of a rubber chicken circuit several times a year and, at one congregational supper, he found himself next to a recently retired Army general.

As I’ve mentioned before, my dad was a personality and strangers generally had one of two responses to him: run screaming from the room or tell him things they wouldn’t have told their own mother. Evidently, the general was in the latter camp. The subject of Carter came up, as it nearly always did in Southern Baptist circles in those days, and my dad mentioned that, despite everything, he had voted for him.

The general said: “You weren’t wrong.”

From there, the discussion went to the general’s dark knowledge, only a little of which he could share, of course, of the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission. Long story short, the general was of the informed opinion that the mission had been sabotaged. When my dad pressed him as to who would do such a thing, the answer was nonspecific but the general did say the forces behind it were aiming at a change in the presidency. The way my dad reported it to me, the general said: “They were looking to replace him with either Ted Kennedy or George Bush.”

Reliable assets both.

Take it all with a grain of salt.

But, if that was their aim, they came close enough. And, until Trump the Dread says otherwise, we still live in their world, patiently, and helplessly, awaiting the fate of all who accept a Security State’s version of “safety.”