Friday, August 10, 2018

Joan To Teddy: “Go Fuck Yourself”: A Note On Chappaquiddick

I just belatedly watched Chappaquiddick. (“C”)

I think I remember some saying the movie has moral ambiguity and complexity at its core or maybe it was that it shows a rounded (complex?) portrayal of Edward Kennedy. (“Kennedy”) We see him from all sides. But then again maybe memory misserves me. 

If I’m remembering some of the commentary correctly, then I violently disagree with it, on either version of what I dimly recollect. 

The movie is single minded in its evisceration of Kennedy, showing him as superficially charismatic, oratorically talented, attractive, authoritative and self assured. But these very first impressions quickly prove gossamer fragile and thin. They get blown away by the quickly emerging clear picture of him as shallow, self pitying, spoiled, weak, self absorbed, cowardly, immature, a liar, a sniveling cry baby, calculating but only stupidly, without an ounce of shrewdness, selfish, morally defective and of mediocre intelligence. I could go on. 

On that last one, it becomes patent when he impotently tries to stand up to the JFK advisors assembled by his father, shown as a villainous grotesque, to “handle” matters. He says that he’ll handle them: they’re his problem, his career. The Robert McNamara character shreds that assertion in all its bathetic bravado. He immediately shows that Kennedy has no understanding the hole he has created for himself and that he’s still digging it deeper but is under the delusion that he’s digging himself out of it. 

McNamara with an alacrity and analytical prowess simply beyond Kennedy sketches the dimensions of the hole and what has to be done, broadly speaking, to get control over each one. Then others in this brain trust, a cynical, amoral dream team to be sure when measured by power, smarts and connections, get into the problem solving act and reduce Kennedy to little more than an errand boy, a virtual gofer, in making calls and the like to implement the approach they hatch to cover up, spin and castrate the danger. 

Kennedy’s mediocrity of mind is punctuated at movie’s end when he repudiates his impulse to resign in telling his cousin “Joey” Gargan, who he asked to write him a resignation speech, that he’s flawed the way “we’re all flawed,” like St. Peter and Moses were flawed. “But,” Joey says, paraphrase, “Moses didn’t walk away and  leave a woman dead in the Red Sea.” In fact, Kennedy here is so obtuse in assimilating himself to St. Peter and Moses, that we’re led to wonder whether this sequence is a true account or is embellished, given that the movie is said to be a faithful rendering of the actual events. 

Kennedy’s mediocrity gets illumination in that resignation exchange with Joe Gargan, nicely played by Ed Helms. Gargan actually grows over the course of C. At first he’s a handmaiden to Kennedy’s power. As such, he allows himself, as do most others, to get corrupted by it. He conspires with Kennedy in Kennedy’s original plan to squirm out of his mess by going along with a concocted narrative including that Kopechne drove; and he agrees to go along with the more sophisticated, cynical spin-plans devised by the brain trust. But Gargan is always conflicted over his role in the cover up. He’s shown as liking Kopechne, inviting her down to Boston for a date, even as she’s obviously drawn to Kennedy over him. 

His anger mounts as increasingly Kennedy tries out for the role of victim, martyr and hero in virtue of the accident—due only of course to his drunken negligence—and his made up attempts to rescue Kopechne, when in fact he just leaves her to drown and die. Gargan’s frustration and anger boil over when Kennedy for sympathetic effect puts on a neck brace to attend her funeral. Gargan fights with him and yanks it off. But Kennedy puts it on regardless. The brain trust tells him it looks fake and terrible. But he wears it anyway, sort of gets away with it, but acknowledges it was a mistake. 

In their climatic last scene together, when Kennedy still has a chance to do the right thing and resign and reclaim Gargan back to his favor, he doesn’t resign and goes with Sorensen’s speech writing bullshit rather than Gargan’s truth. Gargan thereafter leaves Hyannis Port and C’s endnote on him has it that he simply went into private life and became estranged from the Kennedys. 

The point being, as noted, Gargan grows, changes and brings himself to at least some moral reckoning, while Kennedy both stays the same flawed defective and then gets worse by politically trading on what happened, with the awful irony that his initially shredded patina of charisma, authority and self assured oratory rises again with the mess cleaned up—sufficient to win him a massive reelection—again gilding the reality of what he really is and what he criminally did. 

We have as well the leitmotif of comparison between JFK and his lacking youngest brother. While a man walks on the moon that subsequent weekend thanks to the space program JFK initiated, the JFK brain trust is struggling to extricate fraudulently Kennedy from his mire. And while JFK’s WW II heroic rescue is a “profile in courage,” could there be a a more vivid contrast than between it and Kennedy’s self absorbed cowardice in leaving Kopechne to drown and reacting to her in the submerged car only a problem *for him,* mindless of her plight and that there might be a chance to save her? 

So to come back to where I began, I disagree vehemently with any memory of C’s moral ambiguity and Kennedy’s roundedness and complexity. Rather the moral issues are straight forward, black and white, as C has them, just as they should be. There is a clear bright line in it between what’s right and what’s wrong, between what’s good and what’s bad. And that is absolutely as it should be. 

Joan Kennedy says it best for all of us when she says to Kennedy on the way to Kopechne’s funeral , “Go fuck yourself.” 

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