Chappaquiddick is a contemporary exemplar of how superb filmmaking can elevate middling screenplays. It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with Chappaquiddick’s screenplay. It’s an adequate retelling of a dark day in American political history, where Ted Kennedy caused young woman’s death, and somehow salvaged a political career out of the wreckage. Screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan – each writing their first feature – envisage the event with a careful balance of historical ambiguity and moral clarity.
In the wrong director’s hands, Chappaquiddick would’ve been a competent but forgettable political biopic. With John Curran at the helm, it becomes something greater. Curran skilfully navigates the film’s diametrically opposed tones of tragedy and satire with aplomb, somehow creating sympathy for the doomed campaign strategist (Kate Mara) and the man who caused her death (Jason Clarke, excellent), all the while savagely parodying the self-interested corruption of American politics.
Above all, Chappaquiddick is one of the best-edited American films in years, thanks to regular Malick collaborator Keith Fraase. Fraase’s editing uses non-linear overlaps to simultaneously reject a singular narrative while consistently undercutting Kennedy’s team’s attempts to recraft the story to favour him. This is a modest movie, but memorable thanks to its masterful craft.