Never trust a politician

Two movies about the dark art of politics open in the local cinemas this week


OMG, what was he thinking?!! That’s likely to be most people’s reaction to what Senator Ted Kennedy did after he drove off a narrow bridge that fateful night in 1969, dooming his young passenger Mary Jo Kopechne to a ghastly death. John Curran’s recreation of what happened doesn’t sensationalise or invent any lurid details – it sticks close to what’s now on the public record. It doesn’t need to, for those facts are just incredible. For whatever reason, late at night the drunk senator (Jason Clarke) took a wrong turn to a road which led only to an isolated beach with his pretty young passenger Mary Jo (Kate Mara), who had been one of Bobby Kennedy’s campaign assistants. After the accident he left the partially submerged car and didn’t report it until mid morning the next day. In between he talked to two of his closest aides, with their help went back to his hotel (he either had to swim from the island or row – that’s never been established), spoke to his all-powerful political fixer father (Bruce Dern), made his presence known to staff and other guests, then went to breakfast with the party faithful without saying a word. Meanwhile Mary Jo’s body was being fished out of the murky waters. Then he called the police, but what happened next was even more unbelievable.

Most of the movie deals with that aftermath, and its re-telling now is still as relevant as it is chilling. Many of us will have either forgotten the details or weren’t alive in 1969, and the Kennedy myth-maying machine just grinds on relentlessly – fuelled by great dollops of misty-eyed (and largely bogus) nostalgia for the 60s and its spirit of hope and change the Kennedys were tapping into. Just check out Netflix’s current 4-part hagiography Bobby Kennedy For President now streaming. Teddy could have walked straight into Bobby Kennedy’s place after his death in 1968, and most likely – have become the next President. He chose to wait, as we know – but the top job was always considered his destiny. And here Clarke does a fantastic job of portraying the man and his state of mind before and after the accident – his doubts and lack of confidence, his sense of entitlement marred by feelings of inferiority when compared with his brothers, his daddy issues. One of the first things he says to anyone (and this, we see in the movie, is when Mary Jo was still alive and could have been saved) was, “I’m not going to be president.” Was that disappointment speaking? Shock, as he later claimed? Or relief.

He did make a later presidential bid in 1980 against his own party’s incumbent President Carter, but withdrew after more media scrutiny of Mary Jo’s death. The parts of the movie that will infuriate some, and only encourage more useless world-weary cynicism in others, are the bits which show the formidable Kennedy machine in action and the responses of Democrat party hacks and sympathetic government officials. We know Teddy went on to have a stellar career, and is now lionised as a progressive hero in the US. I kept thinking, while watching aghast at the machinations and the reactions of an endlessly pliable media, “Phew, that could never happen now!” But hang on… Look who is President. Highly recommended, highly disturbing… M from May 10. Inner west venues include Palace Norton Street, Palace Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★

Also opening this week

Chappaquiddick may be enough for all you political junkies in one week, but if you do need more, Midnight Oil: 1984 (you can read our take on it here) is well worth seeking out – in limited release for a short time only. Apart from the great music (and the concert footage is just sensational) it sheds new light on and has fantastic historical footage of Peter Garrett‘s a doomed first senate campaign. Unlike Kennedy, Garrett was the real deal, but naive too. Though looking back now may be the perfect antidote for the cynicism induced by Chappaquiddick.  In a good week for new movies, there’a also On Body And Soul and Tully both of which we happily gave ★★★★ or more… And don’t forget Dendy are offering $8 tickets for online bookings to all standard sessions between Thursday May 10 and Tuesday May 15.

Reviews – Russell Edwards