Janus Metz Pedersen
1 Hr., 48 Mins.
Borg vs. McEnroe / Chappaquiddick
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
Kopechne. Kennedy, infamously, didn’t immediately go to the police, and worked tirelessly to reframe the public narrative in an effort to bolster compassion. Surprisingly — or maybe not — Kennedy would remain mostly unscathed, both personally and professionally, after a brief media circus. He would go on to serve in the U.S. Senate for 47 years, representing Massachusetts.
Chappaquiddick, which premiered at SIFF last September and went wide this April, is not as much concerned with the intricacies of the incident — the feature is hardly a product of conspiracy-drama lore — as it is with the tug-of-war between Kennedy’s conscience and the prioritizing of his political career. It is also condemnatory of the eternal, vexing way a woman can be characterized as a blip, rather than a person, interrupting a man's success.
Jason Clarke, giving a tormented, sometimes deliberately nebulous performance, inhabits the central role effectively. One might be inclined to call the portrayal amorphous if we weren’t also aware that Kennedy, who lived in his brothers’ shadows and was certainly prone to acting in such a way that would be persuasive to voters, was also embroiled in a constant search for acceptance from others and of himself. (The moon landing, which happened around the same time as the Chappaquiddick incident, is emphasized here as a way to reinforce the idea that Kennedy was constantly upstaged, even in periods of trouble.)
The brainy, engaging Kate Mara, who plays Kopechne, is not offered much by way of screen time but makes enough of an emotional indentation to mark the magnitude of the tragedy. (The feature recapitulates that she and Kennedy did not know each other very well.) Ed Helms, who plays a trusted adviser that also, in a way, represents Kennedy’s confliction, is good in a rare dramatic turn; Bruce Dern, as Kennedy’s elderly, wheelchaired, stroke-impacted father, is fearsome as the brute who, even in ill health, has the gall to tell his son that he will never — emphasis on the “never” — be great.
Chappaquiddick, which was written by the newcomers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan and directed by John Curran, both is and isn’t a movie made for these times. Certainly, stripping an oft-mythologized arm of our culture is always, arguably, expedient — and the Kennedys, for all they did well, are assuredly worthy of being disrobed of the almost-fantastical sort of reverence that dons their family’s name. The treatment of Kopechne is unsettling, but it also isn’t shocking apropos to the misogynistic political arena. The movie's makers underscore this.
But as I watched the movie just days after the Senate testimonies given by Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, I wondered: is it worth it, emotionally, I mean, to actively subject oneself to going through the motions of a story in which a woman is essentially rendered an inconvenience? The movie, ultimately mildly compelling and more prone to personage-undercutting than valuable insight-offering, dismantles the Kennedy idolization. On its mind is accountability. Don’t forget about this bad thing Kennedy did, the movie subtextually says. I just don’t know how many people are all that willing to rent a movie concerned with this topic at this particular moment in time.
he Kennedy dynasty has been subjected to so much hagiography that a
movie like the largely unsympathetic Chappaquiddick makes for something of a lightning bolt. Based on the title, we can infer that the film is about the Chappaquiddick incident of 1969, which saw Senator Ted Kennedy’s car swerve off a bridge, plunge into a shallow pond, and ultimately result in the death of passenger and Broiler Room Girl Mary Jo
org vs. McEnroe, a psyche-prodding sports drama, is also concerned with romanticism-disabling. It’s undoubted, though, that the feature’s main figures, tennis stars Björn Borg and John McEnroe, have not been subjected to the kind of spectacular deification the Kennedys have seen.
Still, Borg vs. McEnroe, which follows the basic man-behind-the-image
conceit, is captivating — in part because of Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf, who respectively portray the movie’s eponymous figures with judicious attention to detail.
The film is set in 1980, the year the focal Borg and McEnroe competed in the Men’s Singles tournament at the Wimbledon Championships. At the time, the 24-year-old Borg was admired for his Olympian-like dedication to the sport; his no-nonsense commitment, almost robotic, made him look like an athlete who axiomatically lived and breathed the game. The 21-year-old McEnroe, comparatively, came across as something of a refusenik — a mop-haired, undeniably talented upstart who was just as good at precisely whacking the ball as he was at yowling at umpires and getting in behind-the-scenes trouble.
Borg vs. McEnroe climaxes in the aforementioned game, and it works as a thin-on-the-ground example of a mock match being as spellbinding as the real thing. The film’s director, Janus Metz Pederson, doubles down on the emotional tension of the sequence, as if this were a progression that could fit inside a conventional thriller. The editors, Per K. Kirkegaard and Per Sandholt, ratchet up the strain through feverish cuts and laser-focused scissoring. Gudnason and LaBeouf, concomitantly lanky and muscular, are convincing tennis stars.
But more remarkably, the movie makes a plausible argument that Borg and McEnroe — who seemed so strikingly different in their temperaments — perhaps weren’t so dissimilar after all. Their angst was almost identical (both had childhoods sated with borderline-abusive familial pressure); what made them seem so discrete had to do with how they managed their malaise. McEnroe was perpetually choleric in his youth; his self-doubt paired with his frustrations to culminate in emotional explosions. Borg learned how to bottle up his disquietude, and wisely unscrewed the cork during games. The comparisons never overreach — screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl is percipient, and organically supports his primary précis through illuminating flashbacks and efficient depictions of everyday routines.
The film’s principal weakness, then, is its giving LeBeouf less to do. The latter imbues his performance with McEnroe’s distinctive brand of youthful volatility — perhaps an extension of his own — but Sandahl is finally more concerned with Borg. It is as if he noticed, early on, that his story was the more interesting of the two. I think Borg is the more gripping of the duo, too, but the slight disbalance prevents the film from achieving the sort of symbiosis that would make it possibly masterful. Still, Borg vs. McEnroe is a quasi-wonder of a sports movie — a hard-to-find case where the passion for the game is as unmistakable as the performative dedication to it.
Borg vs. McEnroe: B+