Movie Review: Chappaquiddick

When a scriptwriter wishes to depict a character having a crisis of conscience, he or she may (perhaps if they’re in a hurry and want to beat the weekend traffic) revert to the well-worn device of having an angel and a devil perched on each shoulder arguing ever-more-vehemently about the Right Thing To Do. While this doesn’t occur in the just-released “Chappaquiddick,” one can easily imagine the metaphorical pair having a knock-down, drag-out on the shoulders of Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), as he tries to figure out the best course of action. Here, it’s the morning after, and after having consumed mass quantities of alcohol, driven off a bridge on the Martha Vineyard’s isle after a party, and left his passenger, campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) to die, it’s time to face reality (as the movie soundtrack puts it for those who aren’t paying close attention). Or is it?

We’ve all seen this story before onscreen – (in fact, I did last week when I watched last year’s Oscar-nominated “I, Tonya,”). A character manages to make a really colossal screw-up, the kind which definitely won’t vanish regardless of what you do or who you are. He confesses to his friends (Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan) who respond with a mixture of horror and pleas for him to come clean. However, the surname of the character changes everything. Jason is the last surviving son of an illustrious New England political clan who has been plagued for years with the kind of bad luck that would still rate a mention in pop songs a century later (see Vampire Weekend’s “Diane Young”). This means that simply having achieved the position of a Massachusetts Senator isn’t adequate, and his father (Bruce Dern), now wheelchair bound after a stroke) would really, really like Jason to run for President eventually.

So as the Vineyard authorities answer the report that there’s a dead body of a pretty young woman, plus a semi-submerged car in the water, Jason makes some belated stabs at decency by phoning Kate’s family (though he’s not sure how her last name is spelled). He confesses to his father, then attempts damage control – with the help of a granite-faced political spin team whose dialogue is liberally laced with black humor. (Jason may possibly have let his license expire to compound things.) One course of action is to pretend Jason has concussion – although as the media points out, this doesn’t appear to affect his ability to crane his head around at Kate’s funeral to see who has arrived. Another – and this is the one that will put him at odds with childhood friend Ed – is to resign. Fortunately, all this occurs during the Summer of ’69 when Armstrong lands on the moon, so as one character puts it, that’s the best timing one could hope for in a situation like this.

Chappaquiddick” is basically “I, Tonya” if you changed the main characters from working class stiffs to blue-blooded New Englanders and gave them the ability to frostily inform the media that they will release a statement later that week, thank you very much while they’re being hounded. In both movies, characters offer their thoughts on truth, and they are strikingly similar. The fates of those who can’t paper over their crimes with privilege are a lot different, though. Tonya Harding was excommunicated from the skating world and became a “lady boxer,” while Kennedy went on to run for President. But as the movie points out, Kennedy never really wanted to do this, so in one way, excess privilege is a cage, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Movie Review: Megan Leavey

As a rule, being screamed at isn’t one of my favorite things, but I have the strong feeling that if I were to suddenly find myself parachuted into basic training in a Hollywood film, I wouldn’t be too fazed, having seen so many boot camp depictions there already. Watching them, all it seems you have to do to get along is bark an appropriate yes, sergeant/no, sergeant and make sure you never start to smile at anything, however funny, lest you be ordered to “wipe that smirk off your face!” In “Megan Leavey,” opening today, we get some of that familiar hazing of the heroine (Kate Mara) and her fellow recruits, but we rest assured that beneath that tough-as-nails exterior lies a heart of gold. Also that the dog Kate eventually bonds with has a literally worse bark than bite.

Kate plays the titular Megan (based on a real life story) who leaves her home in New York and winds up enlisting in the Marines circa 2000 after struggling with family – and possibly substance abuse – issues. Once there, she continues to have difficulty finding focus, not being particularly adept at people reading or wall climbing. When, after she develops social skills for plot purposes, and gets in trouble by sneaking off-campus one night with a couple of girlfriends to a bar, she is admonished by her platoon leader (Common) and sent to do custodial work in the kennels. There she meets Rex (played by a variety of adorable German Shepherd lookalikes), a dog with a bad reputation and begins to work hard so that she can meet the qualifications needed to pair up with such dogs, who serve as “sniffers” of explosives. There’s also a potential love interest in the form of Ramon Rodriguez who appears promising (although he’s not a Yankees fan). But her real bond is with Rex, and when they are shipped overseas to Iraq, it will come as no surprise to the viewer when they both more than prove their mettle. However, that’s just the first half – and the second – even more poignant, involves Kate’s adjusting to civilian life and her quest to eventually adopt Rex after he is retired. But Rex’s temperament will make this a challenge, although unsurprisingly, there is a happy ending.

The day-by-day grim realities of military service are not stinted on and are depicted matter-of-factly- at one point, Kate casually mentions the temperature: 120 degrees. After giving Kate and the others an alarming description of serving in Iraq will be like, a fellow soldier adds that he’s understating things. But “Megan Leavey” also does an excellent job of depicting the unbreakable bond that sometimes forms between a wary animal and their equally troubled caretaker. It beats “A Dog’s Purpose” earlier released this year paws down, too, as the canine survives – and the real life Rex and Megan had a successful post-military bond.