Two life changing events happened on a seemingly innocuous weekend in July 1969.
Everyone knows the latter, Neil Armstrong’s groundbreaking the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission soon to be depicted in Damien Chazelle’s biopic “First Man.”
What happened late one night 18 hours earlier is less clear as a car crash into a pond along the Eastern seaboard killed the presidential hopes of a famous Senator and took the life of one of his aides.
Director John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick” examines this fateful accident and Ted Kennedy’s attempt to salvage his political future over the course of a weekend while the world looked to the skies.
Australian actor Jason Clarke is convincingly all-American as the brazenly confident, yet somber Kennedy, still dealing with the recent death of his brother Bobby. His wandering melancholy early in the film flips on its head after the accident as Clarke decisively takes Kennedy into crisis management mode.
There’s an aggressive decisiveness that’s chillingly calm and unflinching in Clarke’s performance, leaving audiences to question the motivations of every decision and if Kennedy feels genuine remorse.
While “Chappaquiddick” tries to remain balanced and not imply answers to unanswerable questions, the film certainly doesn’t do Kennedy any favors.
His father Joseph also comes out worse for the wear in a striking, nuanced performance from Oscar nominee Bruce Dern. Confined to a wheelchair for the waining moments of his life, Dern’s elder Kennedy is a cold, calculated retired politician who wields an iron fist with a simple glare or disapproving nod.
The physicality (or lack thereof) Dern displays in demonstrating Kennedy’s aphasia following a stroke is stirring and convincing, matching Dern’s best work as an aging man in 2013’s “Nebraska.”
“Chappaquiddick” is aided by a talented, yet unassuming supporting cast including Kate Mara as the late Kennedy staffer Mary Jo Kopeckne, Jim Gaffigan as right hand “yes man” Markham and a superbly nuanced turn from funnyman Ed Helms as Kennedy’s cousin Joseph Gargan, a family fixer who surprisingly becomes the moral compass of the film.
There’s a lot to be surmised about what happened on that night in 1969.
Though screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan take some liberties with conversations between Kennedy and Kopeckne, nothing about “Chappaquiddick” feels forced or disjointed.
Even the film’s early climactic moment with Kopeckne in the car has a plausible practicality that feels dramatically genuine, even if that wasn’t how events unfolded.
Curran walks a fine line to ensure his film leaves scenes open to the audience’s interpretation and viewers will have widely different experiences watching “Chappaquiddick” based on their own personal ideologies.
Leaving the movie intentionally ambiguous is perhaps the film’s biggest single strength.
Unfortunately, “Chappaquiddick” arrives far too early in the calendar year to merit any serious conversation come award season, although Clarke and especially Dern would prove worthy of nominations.
While other recent political biopics have taken a firm stance on issues, “Chappaquiddick” feels refreshingly impartial in allowing viewers to come to their own conclusions.
Now in limited release, “Chappaquiddick” certainly deserves audiences that would make the extra effort to seek out the film.