When we look into a mirror, there are always three images: What we see, what others see, and what’s really there. Sometimes those three are very similar. Sometimes they’re contradictory. And sometimes they have nothing to do with each other. That’s true in life and it’s true in art. This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will examine this reality in the worlds of cinema and politics as we look at how two of the great scandals of one era are represented in another. It’s “Chappaquiddick” (2017) vs. “The Post” (2017) in a contest between a supposedly dispassionate and overtly opinionated presentation of history to see if either is worth watching.
“Chappaquiddick” is about an incident in 1969 when Ted Kennedy (Jason Clark), then a youngish-U.S. Senator and surviving brother of an assassinated President and an assassinated Presidential candidate, got into a late-night auto accident and left a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) dead at the bottom of a pond. Kennedy didn’t report it until the next day, wound up getting a suspended sentence after being found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident, and went on to serve in the U.S. Senate for another 50 years. Mary Jo remained dead all that time.
See those things behind him, kids? Those are what we used to call "books."
The movie is a wonderfully made but dry and bloodless tale of the machinations to save a political dynasty and the all too human prince royal at its heart. The people who made “Chappaquiddick” no doubt see themselves as having made an honest but fair presentation of an incident that literally changed the course of American history. It’s probably hard for anyone born after 1980 to fully grasp the popularity and political stature the Kennedy name used to command. If Ted Kennedy doesn’t drive a car off that bridge and into the water, he almost certainly runs for President in either 1972 or 1976 and, I think most would agree, very likely wins. That means possibly no second term for Richard Nixon, which means no impeachment or resignation. Watergate becomes, if anything, a partisan food fight involving a former President instead of a Constitutional crisis and we don’t spend the next half-century attaching the suffix “-gate” to every political scandal. It surely would have meant no President Jimmy Carter and very probably no President Ronald Reagan, which then puts us into a world of alternate history none of us can truly anticipate or predict.
Yet “Chappaquiddick” treats this globally historic event involving one of the most egregious offenses ever committed by an American politician with all the energy and intensity of a week spent watching paint dry. It bends over backwards to present Ted Kennedy in as sympathetic light as possible while still sticking to the largely undisputed facts of the story. Kennedy is, in fact, the third most decent person in the film, trailing only Mary Jo and Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), a Kennedy cousin who grows disillusioned with the deceit and dishonor that goes into saving Teddy’s political future. The closest the film comes to actual villains are the monstrous Joseph Kennedy (Bruce Dern), Ted’s father, and the soulless fixers and hatchet men of the Kennedy retinue, who treat a young woman’s death as a terrible inconvenience to be managed and overcome.
Doesn't a movie from HER point of view seem like a much better idea?
The movie does a marvelous job of portraying how much people believed in the Arthurian myth of a Kennedy Camelot, that Ted represented something good and noble that was worth serving and defending, and how that belief remained pure even as grubbier motives and jaded wisdom propped it up. And in its presentation of the abortive attempts to cover things up and manipulate events after Mary Jo’s death, “Chappaquiddick” serves as a useful reminder that life just happens and even the smartest people in the world are usually left stumbling and scrambling to keep up.
Yet in the film’s obsession with being “fair,” in its refusal to advocate a point of view or make a moral statement about the events it puts on screen, it actually embraces a terribly unfair and biased viewpoint. I’ve read it called the “view from 30,000 feet,” where you distance yourself far enough from a situation until it becomes an exercise where nothing matters except how neatly and cleverly you intellectualize what took place and turn triumph or disaster, sin or virtue, truth or lies into grist for the analytical mill.
“Chappaquiddick” misses, or is determined to ignore, the most significant point of its own story. One of the leading figures of the American political elite left a young woman dead at the bottom of a pond. There was real cover up. Everybody knew what happened. Everybody knew what it meant. And no one cared. There was no outrage. It didn’t become some national embarrassment which no one talked about. Oh, it prevented Ted Kennedy from becoming President but if you look back, that was less because of what he did and more because of how he handled it in the aftermath. The film is an excellent period piece but never manages to fully engage the viewer because it has no relevance other than as a historical document. “Chappaquiddick” shouldn’t be about Ted Kennedy. It should be about how the public and his fellow elites looked at Kennedy leaving a dead girl at the bottom of a pond and said “We’ll give him a mulligan on that one.”
As a historical document, the movie does almost everything right. The cast is great and the filmmakers do their level best to make people in rooms talking as visually interesting as possible. But these filmmakers clearly didn’t actually care about Ted Kennedy or Mary Jo Kopechne or American politics. It’s like they made this motion picture as a challenge and their success may have meant something to them but there’s no reason for anyone else to notice.
"I'm glad you could all make this meeting. We've got to get to the bottom of the biggest story of our lives: 'Where have all the black people gone?'"
The people who made “The Post” certainly cared. They cared about the 1st Amendment. They cared about Vietnam. They cared about feminism and sexist attitudes toward women. They cared about trying to grab the viewer’s attention. They cared about possibly getting more award nominations for Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. And they cared very much about hating Richard Nixon.
The story is about “The Pentagon Papers,” the name given to a historic analysis of America’s involvement in Vietnam which was leaked to the news media in 1971 and revealed that the U.S. government had been lying to the public for decades about that involvement and the war into which it grew. The info was first given to the New York Times but the movie focuses on the role played by the Washington Post, which the film tells us was a distant runner up to the NYT in terms of importance and influence. When the Post finally gets its hands on the classified study, the NYT has been ordered by a judge to stop publishing stories about it and the film turns into a battle between super-stereotypical newspaper editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and the Post’s corporate management for the soul of owner and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). Will she allow them to run the story and risk possible financial and personal ruin?
Spoiler alert: She does.
"I've checked all the documents and still can't figure out how a big city newspaper in 1971 and a major motion picture in 2017 have no black people anywhere."
Like “Chappaquiddick,” “The Post” does a tremendous job of transporting you into the past…or at least a version of the past that exists in the minds of the filmmakers. Unlike “Chappaquiddick,” “The Post” does not hesitate to take sides. It has clear and unambiguous heroes and undeniable villains. Viewers are left with no doubt who they should cheer and who they should boo. And while that makes it more entertaining, it also misses the real point of the story. “The Pentagon Papers” is all about two men, Defense Secretary Bob McNamara, who commissioned the study, and Daniel Ellsberg who leaked it. They are the hero and the villain, though which is which may depend on your views of the Vietnam War.
“The Post,” however, reduces both of them to supporting characters who barely appear in more than four scenes between them. Instead, the movie focuses on the journalists who wrote stories about what McNamara and Ellsberg did and while that does give you a hero, who’s the villain? The movie offers up President Richard Nixon. But Nixon didn’t get America into Vietnam. He’s not responsible for escalating America’s involvement. And he’s not the one who starting lying to the country about it and kept lying for decades. It wasn’t even his Secretary of Defense who commissioned the study. In this case, Nixon just happened to be the poor schmuck sitting in the White House when someone published classified government secrets that critically undermined a U.S. war effort just as he was trying to salvage something out of a mess made by others.
"I mean, look at this movie. Did 'Black Panther' somehow use up all the black people and leave none for the rest of us?"
But while the movie can’t avoid acknowledging that “The Pentagon Papers” were about how Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson lied America into Vietnam, lied to keep America in Vietnam, and then lied to cover up how America was failing in Vietnam, there’s no bile, venom, or blame directed at any of them. Indeed, “The Post” is quite direct in stating that Nixon is worse than all of those men put together and he was despised by the movie’s good guys before any of them knew anything about “The Pentagon Papers.” Nixon is the villain because Nixon in the villain because Nixon is the villain. He never was nor ever will be anything else.
And that’s why “The Post” is a well-executed political thriller that you’ll forget about before the closing credits end. It’s simply repeating the same story the news media has been repeating about “The Pentagon Papers” for nearly half a century. There’s no nuance. There’s no questioning of the narrative. There’s no exploration of forgotten or ignored elements of the story. Director Steven Spielberg essentially made a visual study guide for any student who’s going to have a test on this little moment in history from a Nixon-hating professor.
"I could have sworn I saw a black person somewhere. It's right on the tip of my tongue."
The people who made “Chappaquiddick” looked in the mirror and saw a brave band of filmmakers telling a dark tale of American politics. What others see is a bunch of people too afraid of offending anyone to produce anything of true merit. The real reflection is of a film that profoundly misses its own point. The people who made “The Post” saw themselves in the mirror as oracles reminding the country of the importance of the 1st Amendment and the need to defend it from government censorship. What others see is a nice little grown up drama featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest and best grown up stars. It’s actually a piece of propaganda that tries to argue that because the news media did something good in 1971, everyone should just forget all their legitimate complaints about the news media in 2018.
“The Post” takes this Throwdown because it works better as a movie-watching experience. Both have some value as peeks back in time. Neither are anything you need to go out of your way to watch.
Want to know how we got Trump?
Written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan.
Directed by John Curran.
Starring Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, Olivia Thirlby, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols, John Fiore, and David De Beck.
The Post (2017)
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sara Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
This is how we got Trump.