SAYS CURRAN'S MOVIE EXTENDS IRONY OF DE PALMA'S CLASSIC IMAGE
Armond White reviews John Curran's Chappaquiddick for National Review:
Brian De Palma’s 1981 political thriller Blow Out was the first movie that dared address the events conjured by the single term "Chappaquiddick.” It was a generational provocation. De Palma, whose comedies Greetings, Phantom of the Paradise, and Hi, Mom! were obsessed with the JFK assassination, advanced to make a deeply emotional film reenacting a well-known loss of life (a supposedly disposable female victim played by Nancy Allen) and national disillusionment. De Palma raised that tragedy, involving both a callous political cover-up and society’s general naïveté, into larger concerns: Blow Out’s daring aesthetic examination of a film technician’s (John Travolta) cinematic-moral process that also expressed modern American despair. Blow Out is an overwhelming movie experience, a would-be classic if it weren’t all but ignored by today’s largely unprincipled film culture.
That’s why John Curran’s less flamboyant, more realistic approach in Chappaquiddick is such a moving surprise. Curran modestly takes on the historical events of the evening in 1969 when political campaigner Mary Jo Kopechne died in a submerged car, after Ted Kennedy accidentally drove the vehicle into the ocean. De Palma reimagined those incidents (including the cultural aftershock) with a combination of dreamlike intensity and paranoia. But Curran goes directly for the morally complex legend of the Massachusetts scion, to show how this political figure compromised himself.
In terms of both film and political history, Chappaquiddick is also a classic. Curran (and screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) break away from the Kennedy legacy so beloved by mainstream media. But these filmmakers also oppose the Millennial tendency toward demonization. Maybe every media consumer should see this film to appreciate the humanity that Curran and company display. They commemorate Kopechne (Kate Mara’s performance blends simple sweetness and cagey ambition) and sympathize with Kennedy — balancing the motives of both follower and icon. This is the rare occasion when partisan animus is ignored to facilitate an understanding of human culpability. The movie doesn’t exonerate Kennedy, but it challenges viewers to ease off their judgmental reflex.
The cynical smartness that has afflicted contemporary journalism and made much recent cinema insufferable is confronted by Curran’s conscientious dramatic rigor. Condemning someone you disagree with has become the rage since the 2016 election, as too many people seek to justify their own prejudices and power, the nation be damned. Upon reflection, De Palma’s shot of Nancy Allen screaming before the backdrop of a defamed Old Glory may be the single movie image that is sufficiently magnificent and full of dread to sum up our political and emotional crisis. Chappaquiddick extends the irony of that image in its tale of a politician twisted by his damaged ego and the burden of responsibility.
At the end of the review, White concludes, "Kennedy history films are all about revised thinking (JFK, Thirteen Days, Jackie, even last year’s LBJ), and Chappaquiddick, surprisingly, avoids self-righteousness even as its closing scene of Kennedy’s participation in media manipulation makes us face up to the hypocrisy and opportunism that defined the legacy of 'The Lion of the Senate' — faults we indulge along with our politicians. By resisting Millennial cynicism, Chappaquiddick is, at last, a worthy companion to De Palma’s masterly national vision. Or — as David Mamet noted in his 1999 film adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Winslow Boy, updated as commentary on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal — 'It is easy to do justice, very hard to do right.'"