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The Eternal Return of the Kennedys

Two new films reveal the ways their legacy has and hasn't changed.

Courtesy of Netflix

No family in America embodies the promise and tragedy of the 1960s better than the Kennedys. John F. Kennedy’s appeals to a younger generation reflected the Baby Boomers’ sense that they were different from the generations that had come before them. Robert F. Kennedy’s idealistic, 85-day campaign for president in 1968, in which he urged Americans to come together across racial and economic lines, appeared to conjure, however briefly, the better world the Boomers envisioned. That both Kennedys met tragic ends came to represent the chaos of the 1960s as well as its unfulfilled hope. Their work was left to Edward Kennedy, who was haunted by the untimely deaths of his elder brothers and, eventually, by his role in the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a woman who worked for Bobby’s campaign.

The lingering idealism of the 1960s, coupled with Boomer self-regard, turned the Kennedys into a family of marble busts: At some point, they stopped being human. Even Ted, the best-known of Joe Kennedy’s sons, was transformed into an institution, the Lion of the Senate. American popular culture either embraced caricatures of the Kennedys or the myth of Camelot. But that myth has been cracking up for a while now. The Boomers, it is now clear, have not made the world a better place; to the contrary, they voted en masse for Donald Trump. JFK’s star, meanwhile, has fallen, undercut by his personal failings and lack of real accomplishments in office.

Still, the Kennedys exert their influence on the way America sees itself, particularly now that the 1960s have become a mirror for our turbulent, polarized times. Two new films about JFK’s brothers—Chappaquiddick, a narrative feature about the death of Kopechne, and Bobby Kennedy For President, a documentary about RFK’s political career—reveal how the Kennedy myth has and hasn’t changed in the 50 years since RFK’s death.

The assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy inevitably color every depiction of them, given that their legacy is partly built on what might have been, particularly in regard to the Vietnam War and civil rights. Ted Kennedy’s “what might have been” moment, however, was his role in the death of Kopechne, a turning point in his career that has always divided people. Conservatives have used it as a cudgel to damage Kennedy’s legacy. After all, what does children’s health care matter when the Lion of the Senate killed a woman? Kennedy’s defenders on the left, in contrast, have focused on Kennedy’s long list of policy achievements, treating Chappaquiddick as a tragic accident that the right has unfairly exploited.

Chappaquiddick attempts to navigate this morass by focusing on the day of the accident and its immediate aftermath. Kennedy attends a boat race and then a party honoring a group of secretaries who worked on Bobby’s campaign. He is preparing to launch a presidential campaign, largely because he feels duty-bound to do so, both by the memories of his murdered brothers and by his domineering father. He and Kopechne go on a drive and discuss his ambitions, wherein Kennedy, who is inebriated, drives off of a bridge. A panicked Kennedy then collects his closest advisers before heading back to his hotel on Martha’s Vineyard. He reports the accident nine hours later and spends the rest of the movie trying and failing to do the right thing, which is to acknowledge his role in Kopechne’s death. Meanwhile, a group of political operatives and family members attempts to salvage his political career.

Plodding and moody, Chappaquiddick contains a brilliant lead performance by Jason Clarke. Ted Kennedy has often been caricatured as a boorish drunk, but Clarke gives him an emotional depth that Kennedy’s detractors too often discount. Kennedy’s first words after the accident—“I’ll never be president”—speak to the impossible expectations that were placed on him by the deaths of his brothers. There’s also his father, played as an abusive, tyrannical patriarch by Bruce Dern. In Chappaquiddick, the foundation of the Kennedy dynasty is not public service, but Joe’s ruthless ambition, which has made Ted callow, cowardly, and disposed to drink.

Where Chappaquiddick succeeds is in showing the overweening nature of the Kennedy myth—no one is more sick of the Kennedys than Ted, who longs to escape his fate. Driven by Joe’s thirst for power, the Kennedys have as much in common with a mafia family as a political dynasty. This naked ambition—with all the human cost it has entailed—has so often been lost to history, superseded by the depiction of the Kennedys as a benevolent public good. In Chappaquiddick, the idealized version of the Kennedys is mercilessly cut down to size. They become representative not just of what ails politics, but what ails America writ large: opportunism, privilege, entitlement.  

If Chappaquiddick punctures the Kennedy myth, then Bobby Kennedy For President, a four-part Netflix documentary, updates it to fit the present. Directed by Dawn Porter, the film focuses on RFK’s political career, briefly addressing his beginnings as an attorney for Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt in the 1950s, before going on to his role in his brother’s administration in the early 1960s, in which he served as attorney general; his four years representing New York in the Senate starting in 1965; and his short but consequential presidential run. His assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968 makes nearly a third of the film’s four-hour runtime, culminating in a botched final act that tries and fails to piece together what really happened the day he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan.

An ardent anti-communist, Kennedy began his political career working with McCarthy, and played pivotal roles in campaigns against organized crime and civil rights leaders. (He is idolized by Bill O’Reilly and Rudy Giuliani for good reason.) But over the course of the 1960s—and particularly in the wake of his brother’s death—interactions with Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Cesar Chavez transformed him into an anti-poverty and social justice crusader.

While Bobby Kennedy For President doesn’t shy away from the unsavory parts of Kennedy’s political history, the combined weight of his presidential campaign—which held out the tantalizing possibility of a second President Kennedy taking office in 1969 instead of Richard Nixon—and his assassination transform a complicated story into something that approaches hagiography.

Kennedy’s commie-hunting and role in the government wiretapping of King are depicted as awkward missteps on the inevitable road to that ‘68 campaign, while Kennedy’s early attitude on race and actions as attorney general are repeatedly excused as naïveté. Kennedy’s ruthlessness and ambition, which are treated as the family’s hamartia in Chappaquiddick, are swept under the rug of his compassion. Of the dozens of talking heads, who include Lewis, Dolores Huerta, and Harry Belafonte, only former New Jersey Representative Neil Gallagher suggests that he is anything less than a saint. 

Then again, there was something saintly about him, even when he was alive. Wherever he went after 1964, he was surrounded by throngs of people who tried to grab a hold of him. Then there was the speech he gave in Indianapolis on the day of King’s assassination—a brilliant piece of improvisation in which he quotes Aeschylus and may have quelled a riot. In the midst of a 25-day hunger strike in 1968, Chavez waited to eat until Kennedy was by his side

Bobby Kennedy For President’s failures to capture the human behind the politician are by design, however. It aims not only to draw parallels between Kennedy’s tumultuous final days and our own, but to present Kennedy’s politics as the only way out of the madness. Kennedy’s full-throated embrace of minority rights and anti-poverty measures, his determination to build a broad coalition, and the compassion that allowed him to evolve from conservative cop to social justice warrior are all depicted as the tissue that could have held together a country pulling itself apart, and could do so again.

His presidential campaign, as former aide Thurston Clarke describes it, was “a template for how a candidate should run for the White House in a time of moral crisis”: with compassion, courage, and clear eyes. A montage featuring the chaos that followed Kennedy’s death—the riots of 1968, Kent State, and, oddly, Woodstock—implies that a President Robert Kennedy could have protected the country from fragmentation. Bobby Kennedy For President ends up being a forward-looking, cross-generational remix of the stale old Kennedy myth.  

What to do with America’s first family? These films depict warring impulses. Chappaquiddick suggests that Americans dispense with the mythology altogether, that we see the Kennedys for what they were: venal, screwed-up, human. Bobby Kennedy For President implies that a new Kennedy myth is growing right before our eyes, that RFK’s 1968 campaign can serve as an archetype for a new politics that will help America escape its ongoing crisis.

But one thing is clear: the crises that the Boomers faced—whether it was a fractured polity or a corrupt political class—haven’t gone away. They’ve only gotten worse.