Reel Dad: Chappaquiddick recalls the Kennedy mystique

Few people today remember the scandal of 1969 when Senator Edward Kennedy was involved in a single-car crash that killed a young woman who had worked for his late brother Robert. While the senator only received a suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident, the controversy interrupted a political momentum that could have propelled him to the White House. And it confirmed for many people that the Kennedy family may actually be cursed.

All these years later — as we have become more immune to political scandal with each headline — someone in the movies decided this forgotten story might again be relevant. That’s surprising. Kennedy emerged from the scandal a stronger man who ultimately made a difference with the legislation he pushed in the U.S. Senate while others in the family continued to tarnish the name. On screen, Chappaquiddick emerges less a movie to see than a movie to question. Other stories seem more deserving of the Hollywood treatment.

The story begins when Ted — as the senator is called — travels to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1969 as the world prepares to watch the first man walk on the moon. In addition to participating in a sailboat race he looks forward to celebrating the reunion of young women who worked for his late brother. As the party progresses he decides to take one of them — named Mary Jo Kopechne — for a drive to the beach. But his car drives off a narrow bridge and turns over in shallow water. Kennedy frees himself from the wreckage while the stranded lady tries to stay alive in the car. The panicked senator wanders off into the darkness, waiting until the next morning to officially report what happened.

Such an incident today would quickly spread in social media. But life moved slowly in 1969. And the relaxed pace of the police — as well as the power of the Kennedy name — enables the senator and his handlers to rewrite the events to cast the politician as a victim of circumstance. The film works best in these group sequences that reveal how private committees create public reactions. And actor Jason Clarke makes us believe in Kennedy’s uncertainty about what to do while relying on the power of his family name.

What works less well is how the film tries to examine the senator’s relationship with his failing father. While the elder Kennedy — well played by an almost unrecognizable Bruce Dern — plays a key role in the film account of damage control, only those who were there would actually know how much influence the aging father could have had at this time in his life. While the confrontations make for dramatic scenes on screen they raise questions about the factual basis of these conversations. Also unsettling is the poorly defined relationship between the senator and his wife Joan as well as the absence of Kennedy matriarch Rose.

As with most movies about the Kennedy family, we are as fascinated by the looks of what we see as by their authenticity. On that scale Chappaquiddick scores. Despite its limited budget the film makes us feel we are in the midst of history. Even if the facts are about to be recast.

Film Nutritional Value: Chappaquiddick

  • Content: Medium. The story of how a leader is haunted by his actions could paint a fascinating, layered look at a turbulent man. But Chappaquiddick isn’t sure how to examine the layers.
  • Entertainment: Medium. While Jason Clarke makes the most of playing Ted Kennedy, and delivers a compelling performance, he could have done more with a deeper script.
  • Message: Medium. Because the film strays from its focus, the story offers less opportunity to learn about Kennedy than we would like. And that is what this episode in his life deserves.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to learn more about any historical figure can be worthwhile. But the film could tell us more.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your children about a significant moment and person in history.

Chappaquiddick is rated PG-13 for “thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking.” The film runs 1 hour, 46 minutes. 3.5 Popcorn Buckets. 

Natalie Portman explores the Jackie Kennedy mystique

Oh, how the movies love to look at life inside the Kennedy family.

If Chappaquiddick falls short in telling us what we may not remember, the fascinating film Jackie hits all the right notes to explore what the first lady experienced in the days following the assassination of her husband in 1963.

As the film opens, the first lady searches for words to express her grief. When she fails, she uses her eyes to intensely communicate the sadness. In a few seconds her life turns upside down as tragedy invades a safe space reserved for leaders and their ladies. And, when she looks up, she sees a nation desperate to find a moral to a fairy tale where no one lives happily ever after.

Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in the new film, Jackie.

No matter how much you may remember about the assassination of John F Kennedy — or if you recall the television coverage over four endless days in November 1963 — the insight in Pablo Larrain’s powerful film uses events we remember to reveal emotions we may only imagine. Without relying on a traditional narrative structure or scenes filled with conventional dialogue, Larrain creates a fascinating world in which a young widow tries to make sense a tragedy she cannot comprehend so she can interpret its meaning for a world in shock.

We know these moments. The young Presidential couple arrives at the Dallas airport on a November Friday when the sun shines bright over the Lone Star State. The motorcade whisks them through a downtown blanketed with people where an open convertible gives the crowd a rare view of power. A slow turn at the corner at Dealy Plaza positions the car, the people and the nation for tragedy as the sound that many initially consider a firecracker changes history.

The young widow Jackie Kennedy, as brilliantly portrayed by Natalie Portman, tries to balance her personal reaction with her sense of national obligation. Yes, she is a woman whose husband has died. But Portman’s portrayal reaches beyond the obvious reactions to consider the moment in history. As everyone around Jackie seems to position themselves for change — from brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy jockeying for power to Lady Bird Johnson checking out fabrics for the White House — only Jackie seems to acknowledge that how they frame the story will determine how people remember this moment. She alone considers the narrative while others process their grief.

This fascinating journey comes to thrilling life in the hands of an actress who was named Best Actress for her ambitious look at the world of ballet in The Black Swan. She became a serious contender to win a second Oscar for revealing the layers of despair this woman must feel. In one sequence after another, Portman becomes Jackie as she walks through a silent White House listening to her husband’s favorite music, searches for the historical narrative in a tense conversation with a visiting journalist, or tries to find the words to tell her young children about their father. Throughout these sequences, as well as a detailed recreation of Jackie’s televised tour of the White House in 1962, director Larrain effortlessly connects his new shots for the film with archival footage from the period. And the result is staggering.

Yes, many movies try to bring humanity to historical stories. And the movies love to look inside the Kennedy family, including Chappaquiddick. But few achieve the emotional integrity that Larrain reaches by letting the truth give actors the freedom to explore the depths of grief. With minimal words Portman — who appears in almost every scene — uses her eyes and face to register the range of reactions that tragedy creates. And she helps us understand the reasons why people carefully frame moments in history that will live forever.

Film Nutritional Value: Jackie

  • Content: High. Moviemaker Pablo Larrain creates a fascinating view of how a public woman must process a private tragedy.
  • Entertainment: High. Despite the serious tone and content, the film delivers memorable movie entertainment thanks to the caring and creativity of its approach.
  • Message: High. As familiar as the events may be, what makes the movie work is how Larrain uses a range of visual approaches to reveal the private side of public incidents.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older children about how to process grief is fundamental; any chance to relive key moments in history is welcome.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After sharing this film with older children, take time to ask how they might react to such intense situations.

Jackie is Rated R for “strong violence and some language”. The film runs 1 hour, 39 minutes.