Chappaquiddick revisited

The left seems to have a death grip on Hollywood. The title of the history by Ronald and Allis Radosh — Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left — says it another way. Maybe “romance” is a better metaphor than “death grip,” but you get the idea.

I think back to Lionel Chetwynd’s 1987 docudrama The Hanoi Hilton. Even though the film told a story that had receded into history, the left rose up to smite it. Stanley Kauffman’s review in The New Republic all but called it a crime against humanity. George Szamuely’s January 1988 Commentary essay “Hollywood goes to Vietnam” quoted the opening of Kaufmann’s review: “The Hanoi Hilton is filth. It exploits the sufferings . . . of American POWs . . . in order to promote a distortion of history: that the peace movement in the United States . . . prolonged the imprisonment of those men by impeding American victory.”

Szamuely observed: “Yet all that Lionel Chetwynd appears to suggest is that the ‘peace movement in the United States’ played an important role in the political and psychological war that Hanoi was waging. Obviously, among the groups opposed to the war there were greater and lesser degrees of genuine concern for the casualties, of gullibility about the aims of the Communists, of downright connivance in the propaganda offensive of North Vietnam. But the plain truth is that sympathy for the plight of the servicemen held in captivity was hardly high on the list of priorities.” And he adds: “That Kauffmann’s view was echoed by virtually every other critic suggests that Chetwynd’s arrow hit home.”

The film Chappaquiddick opens this week. It is a good film, a far better film than The Hanoi Hiltan. And its subject — Teddy Kennedy’s evasion of responsibility for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne — derives from something like the Precambrian era. Yet the film is an act of audacity. It refuses to fall into line. I wonder if it can be treated fairly.

I hope so. It is, as I say, a good film. Moreover, the early signs have been positive. When it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, Owen Gleiberman wrote an extremely laudatory review of the film for Variety. To borrow Szamuely’s formulation, Gleiberman found that the film’s arrow hit home.

And we live in a different era, when alternative voices have large audiences of their own. Take, for example, Ben Shapiro, who previews the film briefly in “The grisly history of Chappaquiddick,” or Christian Toto, who is doing his best at Hollywood In Toto to assure the film a fair hearing. This week Christian interviewed Jason Clarke, the Australian star of the film. (I was afforded a pre-release screening of the film this week through Christian’s courtesies.)

Among other things, the film memorably depicts the Kennedy brain trust convened at Hyannis Port in the immediate aftermath of the accident to mull over Kennedy’s means of escape. Kennedy required a means of escape to avoid criminal responsibility, to be sure, but also to preserve his (and the Kennedy retainers’) political viability. The Kennedy retainers treated the accident as a crisis of state.

In his 1976 book on Chappaquiddick, Robert Sherrill called the roll of Kennedy luminaries at Hyannis Port: former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, JFK’s speechwriter and biographer Theodore Sorensen, former Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, political utility outfielder Kenneth O’Donnell, Reps. John Tunney and John Culver, brother-in-law and family manager Steven Smith, speechwriter Richard Goodwin, administrative assistant David Burke, Kennedy administrative assistant David Burke, historian and Kennedy hanger-on Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Washington attorney Milton Gwirtzman.

Sherrill drily commented: “It was the Cuban missile crisis all over again.”

Sherrill’s 1974 New York Times article on Chappaquiddick is still useful as a reminder of the basics in the case. As I recall (and here I am writing from memory), David Halberstam’s 1970 Harper’s essay “Ask not what Ted Sorensen can do for you” (behind the Harper’s paywall) looked at this particular episode of the saga with extraordinary bite. The film renders the deliberations in the same spirit, adding a generous dollop of humor that Halberstam lacked, and they are the film’s beating heart.

The docudrama genre is inherently problematic. I felt the problems of the genre acutely when the film Truth, which also debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, was taken with utter credulity by Variety reviewer Justin Chang. I tried to show just how haywire a film working in the genre can go in “Lies of Truth.” Within the limitations of a problematic genre, however, Chappaquiddick does a good job telling a true story of continuing relevance.

The release of the film this week is already responsible for one accomplishment; it has prompted the republication of Leo Damore’s classic 1988 study Chappaquiddick: Power, Privilege, and the Ted Kennedy Cover-Up. But there is more to it than that. I mostly concur with the judgment rendered by Variety’s Gleiberman . According to Gleiberman, the film “simply delivers the truth of what happened: the logistical truth of the accident, and also the squirmy truth of what went on in Ted Kennedy’s soul. The result may play like avid prose rather than investigative cinema poetry, but it still adds up to a movie that achieves what too few American political dramas do: a reckoning.”

Quotable quote (Joe Gargan responding to Kennedy’s plea that we all have flaws, even great men such as Moses and Peter): “Moses had a bad temper, but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.”

FOOTNOTE: See John’s 2015 recap and preview “First Truth, now Chappaquiddick.” I was a member of the Chappaquiddick book club to which John refers, along with our late friends Bob Collins (I think) and Jerry Nolting (the founder of the club, in spirit if not in fact).

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