"Chappaquiddick" isn't your ordinary Kennedy biopic.
The Massachusetts clan has inspired dozens of big and small screen projects over the past 50-plus years. Some captured the youth and appeal of President John F. Kennedy. Others marveled at the machinations behind the sprawling family and its impact on American culture.
The newest film is like nothing we've seen before. And it might just change the way we look at the dynasty … as well as one "Lion of the Senate."
Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) died after being submerged in a black Oldsmobile on July 18, 1969. Kennedy was able to escape the car and claims he repeatedly tried to free Kopechne to no avail. Rather than call for help, the senator scurried to his confidantes (played by Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan).
Kennedy waited 10 hours before alerting the police about the accident. John Farrar, the local diver who eventually found Kopechne's body, reported she likely died of suffocation, not drowning, due to an air pocket remaining in the vehicle. She could have survived for hours, more than enough time for Kennedy to summon help.
Why did Kennedy wait so long to do the right thing? And why did it take nearly 50 years for Chappaquiddick to get its closeup?
Hollywood, like much of American culture, remains enthralled by the Kennedy mystique. Even activities most should shame, like President Kennedy's serial affairs, rarely get much moral scrutiny. We titter about them … and that's often it.
"Chappaquiddick" will leave Kennedy admirers clutching their pearls. The movie doesn't fall for any conspiratorial feints. It's a "just the facts, ma'am" presentation that makes its revelations all the more chilling.
Nor is the film a polemic, eager to pound the senator for two full hours. Even conservatives will come away with some sympathy for Kennedy, a man who lost two brothers and was left to carry the full weight of the family dynasty. Bruce Dern has only a few minutes on screen as the family patriarch, but watching him dress down his son is difficult to watch.
The smaller the senator looks, the more we pity him … to a point.
Kennedy's presidential dreams likely sank along with Kopechne. His political life should have as well, given the monstrous nature of his actions. That's the underlying message "Chappaquiddick" conveys.
The film arrives roughly a year after "Jackie" hit theaters. That film found Natalie Portman portraying a grieving first lady who remained resolute in protecting the Kennedy image at all costs.
It wasn't pretty.
That Kennedy mystique still tugs at the culture, and more than a few media scribes. A CNN tweet promoting the channel's docu-series "The Kennedys" referred to President Kennedy's "legendary" love life — and infidelities. The social media mocking began in earnest.
That the tweet hit social media in the first place — in the midst of endless negative coverage of President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE’s alleged relationship with a porn star — speaks volumes all the same.
This is an ideal time for "Chappaquiddick" to hit theaters. We're keenly aware of how politicians spin the truth in 2018. We see the tweets, read the leaks and observe how policy positions shift as the cultural winds undulate. That means giving Kennedy's Camelot era and the fallout more scrutiny.
"Chappaquiddick" will certainly do that.
Suffice to say Hollywood feels it's now safe to address the Kennedys in a more sober fashion. Sure, the family still has current members inside the Beltway but their clout can't compare to the '60s Kennedys. They also can't be blamed for the sins of their predecessors.
This film will damage the Kennedy brand all the same.
Yet Hollywood is wary of bringing the foibles of other Democratic stars to screens of any size. The very same week "Chappaquiddick" hits theaters not one but two TV projects based on President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBusiness coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees MORE's impeachment got shelved.
The Clintons still hold some sway over the Democratic party. Recalling President Clinton's sexual indiscretions, particularly in light of our evolved #MeToo era, would have put the party which protected him then ... and now … in an unflattering light.
Did that play a role in the TV projects getting yanked? Hard to say at the moment. It's equally hard to discount the theory. Industry players are keenly aware how certain stories impact the way we view and frame issues.
Why else would we see movies like "Truth" and "Confirmation," which aimed to buoy the legacies of Dan Rather and Anita Hill, respectively? Those projects will live for decades on streaming and cable services, all the while influencing how we recall those figures.
What's more clear? It took nearly 50 years for Hollywood to properly tell Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick nightmare with all the razzle dazzle the industry can muster. We may have to wait some time until Monica Lewinsky gets her closeup.