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At the Cinemark


Grade: B

This news flash just in from the Department of the Obvious: The lifestyles of the rich and famous are different in subtle ways from the rest of us.

Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), a professor and literary critic at Columbia University, reflected on what happens to the soul when the wallet bulges.

“But the truth is that after a certain point the quantity of money does indeed change into the quality of the personality: in an important sense the very rich are different from us,” Trilling wrote in “Manners, Morals, and the Novel.”

When F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that the rich were a unique species, Ernest Hemingway is reported to have snorted: “Yes, they have more money.”

Among the perks of having bank accounts too large to be insured by FDIC is the ability to hire people to help out around the house: a cook, a gardener, a driver and, perhaps, a distinguished gentle person of a certain age, in a tux, to open the door when guests arrive at the door.

And, of course, there’s childcare, which can be delegated to Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee or Mrs. Doubtfire.

But, perhaps, the most important “help” might be someone skilled in getting their boss out of ticklish situations. Such “assistants” are sometimes affectionately called “fixers” or “cleaners” in the underworld – and it’s not a clogged toilet that they are a fixin’.

All of which brings us, by way of our dusty road, to the movie “Chappaquiddick.”

Chappaquiddick Island on Martha’s Vineyard was the site of a notorious car accident on July 18, 1969. Late at night, Senator Edward Kennedy drove a car off the bridge, killing Mary Jo Kopechne, a former staff member for Bobby Kennedy.

The film briefly chronicles the events leading up to that accident, and then spends the rest of the script detailing how Kennedy and his band of “fixers,” struggled to plug this “leak” that threatened to derail Kennedy’s road to the White House.

What emerges is a portrait of privilege and moral weakness as Kennedy uses his wealth and power to try to solve this “public relations problem.”

We watch Kennedy make numerous phone calls which include phrases like “I need a favor” or “You once told my brother you’d always be there for us, and I need your help.” He even uses the police chief’s office to make phone calls, a clear indication that he won’t be receiving any speeding tickets from the officers in this precinct.

In one fascinating scene, Kennedy calls together a group of lawyers/advisers/consultants in his living room to discuss the problem. Kennedy receives blunt criticism for the way he’s handled the matter, making things legally and morally worse with virtually every decision. But after the scolding ends, the staff goes to work to massage this awkward development.

Among Kennedy’s mistakes: not reporting the accident until the next morning, but first making self-serving political phone calls and initially lying by saying Kopechne was driving.

The Kennedy cabal of advisers managed to get the charges against Kennedy reduced to “leaving the scene of an accident” with a suspended sentence. They deflected the gossip about Kennedy’s love life, that included lots of weekends at Martha’s Vineyard with young women – and without his wife Joan.

Some writers have suggested Kennedy had a two-year affair with Kopechne, something Kennedy denied – continuing to present himself as the son of Camelot who just wanted to give Mary Jo a lift. Such unselfishness…

The full truth about that night has never fully emerged, but it’s clear that Kennedy was more concerned with his political future than with the death of Mary Jo.

He managed to massage the “PR problem” so effectively, that his constituents re-elected him by big margins. He delayed his run for the presidency until 1980, losing the nomination to Jimmy Carter.

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Kennedy went on to a distinguished career as a senator. Even his most avid critics acknowledge his bi-partisan bridge-building in the Senate.

“Chappaquiddick” is a relatively even-handed account of the scandal, which doesn’t camouflage his deeply flawed character. The script doesn’t make the affair with Kopechne salacious, choosing to downplay it as a close friendship.

The film opened to tepid box office receipts, suggesting that the shiny gloss reflecting off the Kennedy Camelot has faded.

“Chappaquiddick” does serve as a valuable case study in political ethics.

It’s also a cautionary tale of how some wealthy folks live a life of moral entitlement. The rich don’t ask permission. Instead, they order their fixers to orchestrate forgiveness.

We must acknowledge, of course, that many wealthy folk have their souls intact, seeking to serve others rather than to be served by others.

Bill Gates, for example, seems to be spending his savings on noble projects.

On a local level, Lowell Bartels is a prime example of a successful businessman (McDonalds) with a big heart who co-founded Farm in the Dell, a nonprofit that “works to build community-based, self-supporting farming homes for the disabled.”

But Chappaquiddick reminds us that wealth comes with moral temptations that not all people are able to resist.

The rise and fall of the Kennedys is a case study about the slippery slope down the side of Morality Mountain that rich skiers don’t always navigate well. Sometimes on their exciting slalom they get a little cocky, take one too many risks, miss a few gates and fly off a bridge.


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