'Chappaquiddick' hits the right notes as low-key historical drama

In "Chappaquiddick," the new bio-pic by director John Curran ("Praise," "The Painted Veil," "Stone"), I did not really see Jason Clarke ("Lawless," "The Chicago Code," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes") as Ted Kennedy.

At least, in the beginning.

I have been a fan of Clarke, especially since his role as George Wilson in "The Great Gatsby," and have been waiting for him to get a starring role that he could sink his teeth into.

His portrayal of Ted Kennedy may not be it, but it was close.

The movie does not do him service by being not all that exciting or interesting, but the Powers That Be were not trying to sensationalize the event any more than was done back in 1969. Which worked well for the movie.

I think the best thing they did was to never insinuate that Mary Jo Kopechne was anything more than just an infatuated young woman who was at the wrong place, at the wrong time — unlike the tabloid journalists of the time and political enemies of the Kennedys.

Kate Mara ("We Are Marshall," "Shooter," "House of Cards") does well as Kopechne, and although on screen for only occasional bursts, her talent is very definitely in evidence.

"Chappaquiddick" is one of those rare films where many second-tier players (including ones not expected to do so) shine almost as brightly as the stars.

Clancy Brown ("Earth 2," "Carnivale," "Hellbenders") is great as Robert McNamara, somewhat because of the physical appearance, but also for his talent.

Veteran Bruce Dern ("The Cowboys," "Coming Home," "Silent Running") as Joe Kennedy, is either beginning to show his years, or is a great actor playing his small part to the hilt.

But it is comedians Ed Helms ("The Daily Show," "The Office," "The Hangover") and Jim Gaffigan ("The Jim Gaffigan Show," "That '70s Show," "My Boys") who really surprised viewers with serious acting in key roles.

As Kennedy friend and confidant Joseph Gargan, Helms turns in a great performance which may be considered the focal point of the entire picture.

Gaffigan, playing as U.S. District Attorney Paul Markham, is excellent as a witness numbed by the enormity of the incident, and who senselessly goes through the motions of protecting his friend, all the while wishing he was somewhere else.

The performances of all of the players, as well as the dialogue, are the best parts of this movie, but a good shout-out should go to the set designers who took a bland location, during a bland occasion and blended it seamlessly into remarkable backdrops, hardly noticed, yet willfully backing up each scene.

And, yes, by the end of the movie, I DID believe that Clarke was Ted Kennedy.

"Chappaquiddick" is a piece for history, quietly told, about a time when other tragic events were shouting loudly across History's timeline.

For a low-key movie, it scored well above its bell curve.

Go see it if you enjoy historical recreations and solid acting.

Billy Summers is a freelance photographer who also reviews films for the Putnam Herald. He can be reached at summers855@yahoo.com.

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