This is the greatest story of white privilege ever told.
Just days before man landed on the moon, Senator Ted Kennedy was drinking too much when he flipped his car off a bridge and into a shallow pond. He was fine. He got out. But he left behind his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who died slowly, in agony, as her pocket of air expired. Which is not to say Ted Kennedy was completely unmoved. He was very sad to realize this meant he would never become president. Thinking only of himself, he walked by several houses and many phones in order to let his lawyers know, who encouraged him to report the accident while standing beside a payphone not one of them ever picked up. Instead he snuck back to his hotel, and on the advice of his father, established an alibi. Ten hours later, he made his way to the police station, minutes after her body was discovered. Had he summoned help, she would have lived. Instead she died, not of the impact, not of drowning, but of suffocation over the course of several hours.
The film follows the despicable events that follow: Kennedy’s obsession with minimizing the consequences to himself while painting himself as the victim. He assembles a whole team of men willing to lie and spin the story in his favour. Not a single one of them sheds a tear for the woman who died alone in the dark backseat of Kennedy’s submerged car.
In many ways, I hate this movie. It made my blood boil. But that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. Jason Clarke gives a pretty able and nuanced performance as the unconscionable Senator. Ed Helms also does a good job trying to be his conscience, and that’s not an enviable position. But despite these winning performances, the truth is still obscured. Director John Curran makes some choices I don’t understand, but he’s very capable at leaving space where Kennedy has the opportunity to do the right thing and doesn’t. And though his brother John is of course already gone, the moon looms over Teddy in many a scene, as if his older brother is looking down upon him, reminding us of their very different legacies. It’s a heartbreaking story that perhaps doesn’t fully play that way on screen, in part because the movie is as absorbed with Ted and Ted alone as Kennedy himself is. Opportunity vs. integrity – that’s what Helms says as Kennedy cousin Joey Gargan. And Ted Kennedy certainly chose one over the other.
Seven stories. Self-contained, based on short stories from Robert Boswell’s collection. They have some commonalities, I suppose: toeing the line between fantasy and reality, or the gray area between memory and what really happened. Inventing shit when we’re young and have no experience. Blurring reality when we’re old and looking back. Life is bittersweet. We’re all bastards sometimes. It just depends on the day.
Conrad (James Franco) identifies his father’s dead body and is comforted by his death, comforted by the fact that he wasn’t the only one his father wanted to kill.
Paul (Jim Parrack) goes home to visit his father, whom he barely recognizes. Dementia has taken him further and further away from the man he used to be. All that seems to be left is his meanness, and even knowing it’s the product of disease doesn’t quite mitigate it. It cuts particularly close to home when it involves Paul’s ex wife (Natalie Portman) and the kid who looks disturbingly just like him.
Monica (Kristen Wiig) is a single mother who works as a maid. She gets through the day by fantasizing about using her wealthy clients’ lives as inspiration for the writing that will make her rich and famous one day.
A huge cast, including Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Thomas Mann, Matthew Modine, Rico Rodriguez, Tony Cox, Jimmy Kimmel, and Keir Gilchrist assembles to pull this thing together, along with more than 7 writers and more than 7 directors. The stories are not uniformly good, or uniformly memorable, and though I enjoyed some, I don’t think they really mean much as a whole.
I contemplated walking out on Chappaquiddick before it even started.
Those who’ve been following TIFF this year may know that the festival chose this year to experiment with assigned seating for their Roy Thomson Hall and Princess of Wales screenings. I really hope they don’t try it again.
The Roy Thomson Hall screen looks surprisingly tiny from the second to last row of the furthest balcony. I know because that’s where I got stuck sitting despite arriving nearly two hours early and waiting near the front of the line. From that distance, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy or even follow a complex political drama. I was afraid it would be like trying to watch my neighbour’s TV from a living room across the street.
It turns out I was able to follow the film just fine but I’m not nearly as confident in my review of Chappaquiddick as I am in my scathing review of the assigned seating policy. Following a complex political drama from that distance takes concentration and every time someone takes a bite of popcorn or unwraps a candy counts as a distraction that threatens to take me out of the movie.
I’m still pretty sure that director John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil) intended his docudrama about Ted Kennedy and his team’s handling of the drowning of aide Mary Jo Kopechne to be far more gripping than it turned out to be. Jason Clarke does a pretty good Kennedy and Kate Mara is heartbreaking in Kopechne’s terrible final hours. Ed Helms is especially good as Kennedy’s cousin, lawyer, and conscience. But there’s something missing.
Or maybe I missed it. Maybe that missing element that would have made Chappaquiddick truly powerful was a line that was uttered while my neighbour distracted me with a coughing fit or by checking their phone. Probably though, the missing element is truth. There’s just so much that we don’t know about the Chappaquiddick incident and so much of what happens onscreen is conjecture. The story feels incomplete and maybe that’s the point. It just makes for an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable movie.
War is hell, but returning from war is really rough too. As we’ve realized the devastating effects of PTSD and how severely it has affected an entire generation of American soldiers, war movies have more frequently shown us the human effects of conflict. In my view, that is a welcome and long overdue change. I was somewhat apprehensive going into Megan Leavey, because I feared that it would try to glorify or justify the invasion of Iraq. That’s a non-starter for me because there was no legal basis for the invasion or occupation, and no glory to be had over there. You will never convince me that it was a good idea for the U.S.A. (and not just them) to send hundreds of thousands of troops to a no-win situation in the Middle East. Many of those troops didn’t come back and those that did were never the same.
Megan Leavey (the movie) is the story of one of those troops. Megan Leavey (the person) is a former marine who was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Leavey’s experience in Iraq must have been the most stressful tour of duty imaginable, because Leavey toured Iraq with a partner: a bomb-sniffing dog named Rex. Leavey and Rex went “in front of the front lines” to sweep for bombs and weapons intended to kill the troops supporting the new Iraqi government.
The real Megan Leavey and Rex.
The Iraq we see in Megan Leavey feels authentic. Much of Iraq was (and still is) a war zone, an awful place for a soldier to be, and a worse place for civilians to be. Whatever their reason for joining the armed forces (and for Leavey her reason is to escape upstate New York), the American soldiers deployed there were largely good people with good intentions. We can judge their leaders for numerous bad decisions and questionable motivations, but the fact remains that the soldiers on the ground were doing their best while in harm’s way and on edge because the threats they faced were not obvious. It was not just buried bombs, though that was the prime threat to Leavey and Rex. Most of Iraq’s residents did not (and do not) support terrorism, insurgency, or Saddam Hussein. But a few of them did, and they weren’t wearing name tags, so for an American soldier, every single person not wearing the same uniform as you might be planning to kill you.
Whatever your political views on the war, it should be obvious how bad a situation it was to be an American soldier in Iraq, and in fact politics often get in the way by dehumanizing the situation. With the knowledge we have today, you can (and should) be against the invasion and occupation of Iraq while also sympathizing with the troops who suffered through that insanity. Megan Leavey chooses to remain neutral on the political side and focus not just on the war but also on the aftermath, in service of Leavey’s (and Rex’s) story. The result is a compelling tale that is broader than Iraq, and Kate Mara’s performance really conveys the anguish that returning soldiers suffer through, whether they’re humans or dogs. It’s a very focused movie and more of a tribute to the bond that forms between us and our dogs than a true war movie. I really enjoyed it.
Since I read for leisure less than I’d like, it is rare for me to be hoping that Hollywood does justice to a book I absolutely loved. Andy Weir’s The Martian is that book. Jay handed it to me a while back and the way she did, I knew it was something special. The Martian is both the most accessible and most science-heavy science fiction novel I have ever read. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour at some point and check it out. You won’t regret it.
When I heard that Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Martian was premiering at TIFF 2015, it went to the absolute top of my list. And it quickly became clear I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Despite having a good window for our premium selections, the red carpet premiere was gone before we even had a chance at it. But fortunately, Matt used his window to grab Jay and me a pair of tickets for the next (and only other) TIFF screening of The Martian. We got to see it yesterday and it did not disappoint!
The movie is everything it could possibly be. My only question as we were leaving the screening was whether there was a way they could have kept more in the movie, because some of the problems that arose in the book did not make it into the movie’s two-hour-plus run time. But that’s inevitable and it’s not something I can criticize because the movie was expertly paced and there was nowhere to expand without losing momentum. It’s a reason to re-read the book but not a fault of the movie.
The best part of the whole experience was seeing the spirit of the book preserved and celebrated. As Jay pointed out afterward, while we lost a little Mark Watney time, we gained some time with the other characters, and it was a pleasure to get to know them better. It might even be a better fit with the theme shared by the book and the movie, namely that when we all work together, we can accomplish remarkable things. All we need is a little motivation. There’s no villain here. There are only challenging problems to be solved by the people who are determined to save one unlucky botanist, most notably the botanist himself. It’s a joy to watch it all play out, especially against the backdrop of a Mars that is both desolate and vibrant. The visuals are incredible from start to finish. See The Martian in 3D if you can – it’s simply spectacular.
The Martian is perfect. I can’t wait to see it again.