New! Visual Parables Journal for June 2018

LOVE MOVIES? Want to spark discussion with friends? Subscribe to Visual Parables Journal. The June 2018 issue is packed with complete study guides, including: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, RBG, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Itzhak, The Escape, Lean on Pete, Deadpool 2, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—and more. Visit our Visual Parables store to subscribe.

Lean on Pete (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 2; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords,

the great God, mighty and awesome,

who is not partial and takes no bribe,

who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,

and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.

Deuteronomy 10:17-18

Charley & Lean on Pete find water during their flight from the authorities. (c) A24

Director/writer Andrew Haigh’s film, adapted from Willy Vlautin’s novel, becomes at its midpoint a road trip tale—only much of the trip is on foot, not by car, or even on horseback, even though it is the horse that is the cause for the trip. Although the horse in question gives its name to the film, this is really about the long journey that a lonely but determined teenage boy makes in his search for happiness, the emotional/spiritual journey being as long as the boy’s physical one, from Portland, Oregon to Laramie, Wyoming.

The film is divided into two parts, the first introducing us to Charley (Charley Plummer) and supporting characters as the boy meets and bonds with a five-year-old horse, and the second which consists of Charley and Lean on Pete’s taking to the road to search for his long-lost Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott, who played Percy Talbott in The Spitfire Grill).

Charley and his single-parent father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), have moved from Spokane, Washington, to a small house in Portland. Ray has a good relationship with his dad, but the latter is no more grown up than the son, drifting from job to job and chasing virtually every waitress that catches his eye. One morning Ray’s current conquest cooks the two an egg breakfast before Charley starts out on his daily jog, and the boy asks if this could last. However, she is married, and so this fling will result in terrible consequences for Ray and his son.

As he jogs along, Charley comes upon Del (Steve Buscemi), needing help with a flat tire on his trailer-pulling pickup truck. After paying the boy $10 to fix it, he offers the boy $25 a day to help him at the Portland Meadows race track to which he had been heading with his horse. Pete likes both the horse and the work, performing so well that the impressed Del pays him far more than the agreed upon price. Over the next few days Charley bonds with Pete and befriends female Jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny). Del occasionally wins with his second horse, but not with Pete, so he talks about sending Pete “to Mexico.” Charlie is disturbed by this euphemism, but Bonnie warns him against getting too attached to the horse: “You can’t think of them as pets. They lose too much, they get fired.” During a trip to a circuit of small race tracks Charlie grows all the more closer to the horse, especially after the tragic event that orphans him.

Lean on Pete continues to lose races (often two or three-horse affairs), so when Del decides to “send the horse to Mexico,” Charley rashly takes off with the truck in the direction of Wyoming. Throughout the film we see him trying to find via telephone operators the whereabouts of his aunt. Along the way the penniless boy encounters various people—some helpful and sympathetic, another friendly, until the boy acquires some money. Charley’s impulsive flight with lean on Pete without any real thought as to how the two would survive does not turn out as he had hoped. However, despite the dark events, the film ends on a hopeful note that the young man seeking stability in his life—he yearns to be able to play on a high school football team again—has found it. There are few better scenes of welcoming compassion than the tender one that concludes this film!

Andrew Haigh’s tale is no My Friend Flicka. It is completely unsentimental, Lean on Pete always depicted as just a horse, rather than the super intelligent animal depicted in so many horse and young owner films of the past, able to contribute to the resolution of the plot. This makes this character study even more believable, and the ending in Laramie leaves us with the belief that Charley is a survivor who will grow into a fine young man despite his past—or probably, because of it. The film maker chose the perfect song for the soundtrack, Bonnie Prince’s version of R. Kelly hit “The World’s Greatest,” with the following words that, in describing Charley, are by no means an empty boast:

“I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes
I can feel it
I’m the world’s greatest…”*

Charley is the kind of outsider very much like those championed by the Lord God throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

You can hear this anthem on You Tube.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Rated PG-13. Running Time 2 hours 29 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 0; Sex Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Mark 10:33-35

David Newell played Postman McFeely with Fred Rogers, and he also handled PR for the show–he was the one who conducted me from the studio door to Fred when I first interviewed the host.       (c) Focus Features

Fred Rogers was the most famous Presbyterian minister in North America before his death in 2003, beloved by millions of children and parents, most of whom did not know that he was a minister. As fellow pastor Rev. George Wirth explains in Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville’s new documentary, Rogers managed to preach Christian values without using the doctrinal language of a sermon. Better than most ministers, and undoubtedly than any other children’s program host, he shared Jesus’ love of and concern for children and understood their needs.

Mr. Neville has lined up a studio-full of interviewees who were close to the man, including his wife of almost 51 years, Joanne Rogers, herself a talented pianist; their two sons Jim and John, and Fred’s sister Elaine Crozier. There is Producer Margy Whitmer; Hedda Sharapan, child development advisor; Joe Negri, “Handyman Negri;” David Newell, “Mr. McFeely” and Publicity Director (he is the one I first met when I visited the studio for an interview with Fred); Francois Clemmons, the black singer cast as “Officer Clemmons;” biographer Max King; journalist Tom Junold, former guest Yo-Yo Ma, and several others. Fred himself speaks through numerous archival clips.

The film opens with Fred at the piano explaining his ministry with children by playing chord modulations, a couple of which he demonstrates–an easy one, and a second more difficult. Referring to the latter, he says that he wants to help children “through some difficult modulations in life.” Influential childhood experts like Dr. Benjamin Spock and psychiatrist Erik Erikson influenced Fred, as well as millions of parents, to be alert to the feelings of children, to take them seriously and not dismiss them lightly. Child psychologist Hedda Sharapan  became a member of his staff—in fact she sought her Masters degree at his advice when she first came to WQED seeking a job right after her college graduation. Thus, Fred combined scientific knowledge of child behavior with his instincts, dealing with their feelings like no one else on TV. These were feelings felt by virtually all children—need for security and of self-worth, fears of going to the doctor or dentist, even of loss and death.

A gifted music student in college, he felt a call to the ministry, but put this on hold after watching the newly arrived TV set at his parents’ home. As he states, TV can be a good method of education, especially for young viewers, but he was appalled at the way it was being used—the director cues shots of people shoving pies in faces and hitting one another and talking down to children. Rogers deplored that this powerful mediumt was being employed primarily to sell products to children—we see two boys watching a war film when suddenly, to their wide-eyed delight, a hand emerges from the set giving the delighted boys the same kind of guns used by the soldiers.

In 1951 Rogers worked at NBC in NYC as a member of the production crew for such programs as Your Hit Parade, The Kate Smith Hour, and The Voice of Firestone. Unmentioned is his role in bringing Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors to the network. As I learned during my first visit with him, this was something of which he was very proud.

He began his work in children’s TV at WQED in Pittsburgh in 1954, the program being The Children’s Corner. With host Josie Carie, he worked behind the camera as producer and puppeteer. During this period, he earned his ministry degree at what became Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1963, with the mandate to minister to children through television.

He moved right afterward to Toronto to develop the children’s show that became Misterogers. There he was coaxed to come out in front of the camera because of his natural speaking talent. (The film skips over these Canadian years.) In 1966 Rogers gained from CBC the rights to his program and moved back to WQED where he developed what became his 30-minute series we now know as Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

Always concerned with the development of children and their feelings, Rogers, who wrote all the scripts and songs, divided his Neighborhood into two sections– the Neighborhood of Make Believe with its puppet characters and his house into which he enters at the beginning of each show and changes into his sweater and sneakers. He did not want to confuse his young viewers, so he separated fantasy from reality by never appearing in the Make-Believe segments. His famous Trolley, traveling back and forth between the two, provided the connection with King Friday and his subjects. He ended his shows by assuring his viewers

Rogers took on seemingly frivolous (to adults) topics, as seen in his song based on a child’s early fear of falling into the toilet and being flushed down the drain, and such serious ones raised by the timid Daniel Tiger’s question following the murder of senator Robert Kennedy, “What is assassination?” Decades later he also dealt with fears in the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers. In his answers he drew on words his mother had once said to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Fred’s enormous influence through his dedicated and sincere service to children is beautifully shown in the archival clip from his 1969 testimony before a Congressional committee whose chairman Senator John Pastore supported President Nixon’s intent to cut the $20 million allotted to PBS in the Federal budget. Fred’s testimony was just six minutes long, but so strong that the Senator ended it by telling the witness that he has his $20 million. (Rogers never mentioned this accomplishment to me during the several times that I interviewed him, even though others have lionized him for the achievement.)

The film also deals with the lampoons of his mild manner, he good naturedly accepting them when served up in good will. There is even a clip in which an interviewer gingerly enquires of Roger’s gender, the host replying that he is straight. This is a topic covered by African American singer Francois Clemmons, who was the friendly Officer Clemmons on the show. In a segment in which he and Fred took off their shoes to bathe their feet together in a small pool was deliberately staged at the time when whites were demonstrating against the integration of swimming pools in the South. Neither mentioned the turmoil over interracial swimming, but the camera’s close-ups of their white and brown feet immersed in the water beside each other preached volumes to young viewers.

What Rogers refused to deal with on his program, Clemmons states, was homosexuality. The African American was a closeted gay man back then. When word reached Rogers that he had been seen in a Pittsburgh gay bar, Rogers told him that if he were to go there again, he would be dropped from the show. There is no bitterness in the gay man’s telling of this. He goes on to say that he understood Roger’s concern that the show would lose sponsors and audience were Clemmons’ secret to reach the public. Indeed, he goes on to report that Fred told him at one point that he loved him. Not even my father said that to me, he says, so from that point on he loved Fred Rogers as a true friend who accepted him as he was.

There is so much in this film that religious leaders could have a great time gathering an adult group together to discuss it. I would focus the discussion upon children and our ministry with them (in keeping with Fred Rogers’ approach, I use “with” rather than “to”), using the film as presenting us with a good model for this. I strongly recommend that you read and use Michael G. Long’s fine spiritual biography, PEACEFUL NEIGHBOR: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers. Director Morgan Neville takes a mainly secular approach to his subject, whereas the book, published by our own WJK Press, is written by and for believers who are really into social justice, the author pointing out how, though he was not out-front marching with C-R and anti-War protestors, Fred Roger’ programs and songs subtly dealt with basic issues of justice and love.

Any discussion of this film risks becoming a nostalgic session, with parents and grandparents fondly recalling the time when they and their children almost religiously watched the show. (One of the interesting things I learned from my interviews with Fred Rogers was that their research showed that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was very popular on college campuses. Thousands of college students, missing their secure home environment, tuned in to their TV friend who reassured them that they were persons of value.)

You will appreciate Mr. Rogers even more after seeing the film—and I suspect will look forward with anticipation to seeing TriStar’s dramatic film about him scheduled to go into production this fall. It reportedly is based on journalist Tom Junold’s chronicle of his friendship with Rogers during the last 5 years of the Rogers’ life. (This is the journalistic who appears throughout the documentary.) I suspected Fred Rogers would blush, but be pleased, with the news that Tom Hanks has been signed to play the best friend that children ever invited into their homes.  In the meantime, there is this documentary, scheduled for release on June 8.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables.

Note: To see an account of my four personal encounters with Fred Rogers go to:


Documentary . Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity  1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5


A cheerful look brings joy to the heart…

Proverbs 15:30

How happy are the humble-minded, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs!

Matthew 5:3 (J.B. Phillips)

Pope Francis addresses the United Nations on a number of issues.        (c) Focus Features

Wim Wenders’ new documentary is not a biographical film, but in a sense, a road trip film in which we are companions of the man who heads the Roman Catholic Church. We are invited along to witness this amazing man’s journeys throughout the world. Equipped with a warm smile and arms outstretched to embrace everyone, Pope Francis travels to Buenos Aires; St. Peter’s Square, where on March 13th, 2013, a vast crowd cheers as the Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, just elected as the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church, greets them in Spanish. In NYC he addresses the United Nations; in Philadelphia he reminds those at a men’s correctional facility that the first saint was a prisoner, whom Jesus promised a place in Paradise; after a devastating typhoon, Pope Francis brings hope to the throng of Filipino people; in Africa he comforts parents and children at a hospital; in Israel at the Holocaust Memorial he joins with those who say “Never again!” and he prays at the Jordan River; in Washington, DC he urges the members to stop the arms trade and to welcome refugees; on the coast of southern Italy he meets some of those fleeing from war and poverty; at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan he stands with leaders of many faiths against hatred, as he does later with a similar inter-religious group at Assisi, Italy.

Wenders offers us almost nothing on the early life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio or of his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, his concern being on what his subject says and does now.* He does, however, in black and white sequences that appear to be from a vintage Life of St. Francis, shows us the great saint who inspires his every word and deed, the film opening with lovely shots of the hill city of Assisi, its glorious Basilicas with Giotto’s famous murals of the Saint, followed by the scene of the call of Francis while he is praying in the small church just outside the walls of Assisi. There are several other B&W sequences scattered throughout the film.

Social justice advocates will want to see and reference this film because of this pope’s strong advocacy of issues such as helping the poor, welcoming of refugees, and protecting the environment. He strongly denounces “the plunder of the earth,” and in his encyclical on ecology “Laudato si” he quotes St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun.”

When it is available on DVD, short clips from this film can be used to start or conclude a sermon, so many of them being quote-worthy. Here are a few memorable ones:

“Tenderness makes us use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other.”

“Tenderness is not weakness, it is strength.”

“God does not see with his eyes. God sees with his heart.”

“The future has a name, and its name is hope.”

“In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.”

“Never let the day end without making peace.”

“In the world today, we have so much to do, and we must do it together.”

Perhaps thinking of his church’s history, Pope Francis declares, “As long as the church puts hope in wealth, Jesus is not there.” As the film’s title indicates, Pope Francis is a man of his word. He gave up the luxurious art-decorated papal quarters to live in a guest room. When the Vatican sent him a first-class air ticket to fly to Rome for the conclave of cardinals, he traded it for a coach class seat. And he traveled by public transport from the airport to the Vatican rather than send for a limousine. In these and other ways (such as his remark that he is not the judge of gay Christians) this pope has, as Pope John XXIII said, let fresh air into the church. Many of us believers still have disagreements (women as priests) with him, but our admiration for him far outweighs these. This pope is indeed one we can all look up to for guidance and hope in dealing with the formidable issues of poverty, hunger, the welcoming of refugees, and saving the environment.

Note: To encourage viewership, the studio is offering group tickets. For information, go to

*In 2016 The National Geographic Channel aired an hour-long drama/documentary, Rebel Pope, that dealt with the Pope’s earlier life. (Reviewed in the April 2016 VP.). Also, there is a 4-part series on Netflix called Call Me Francis which does deal with his early life: I will report on in a future issue.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables.


The Leisure Seeker (2017)

Rated R. Running Time 1 hour 52 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 21; Language 0; Sex Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun,

because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 9:9

Elsa & John enjoy neighbors at a trailer court. (c) Sony Picture Classics

Fans of Helen Mirren will be delighted by Italian director Paolo Virzì’s first English language film—she sports a Southern accent this time. Based on Michael Zadoorian’s novel about an elderly Detroit couple, the movie makers move the story to Wellesley, MA, where Ella (Helen Mirren) and John (Donald Sutherland) have been married for some 50 years. She is taking medicine for the intense pain she has been afflicted with, and he, a victim of Alzheimer’s, flits back and forth between forgetfulness and normalcy—the latter includes his being able to recite long passages from Ernest Hemingway, he having been a college professor of literature

Their grown-up daughter (Janel Moloney) and son (Christian McKay) are overly protective, so the parents impulsively decide to escape their close supervision for a while by piling into their mid-70s Winnebago camper for one last adventure together. The RV’s name provides the title for the film. Their destination is the Hemingway House in Key West, Florida, a place that John has always wanted to visit but had never gotten around to it.

Of course, this will be a road trip fraught with many obstacles and bizarre occurrences. A flat tire leads to a near robbery that is thwarted only when Elsa grabs their shotgun from the RV. Later she holds onto the back of a motorcyclist who chases down the RV when the forgetful John leaves a gas station without her. Least believable is the incident in which the jealous John enters a retirement home with that shotgun hidden in his pants leg to confront Elsa’s past boyfriend, who turns out to be… Most poignant is John, forgetting the identity of his life-long companion, thinks she is their next-door neighbor with whom he had some kind of an affair several years ago—he tells her that Elsa is the “love of my life” and that they must end their relationship. Elsa is so enraged by this that she ignores his declaration of love and drops him off at a nearby nursing home, despite the objections of the mystified staff.

The film is a mixed-bag of an affair, though the many little touches in which the couple show their affection, save it. The film’s descent into the darkness in the last half, after John asks Elsa to help him shoot himself with the shotgun at some point in the future when it becomes apparent that his disease has obliterated his personality.  This plea provides an opportunity to reflect upon and discuss the plight of so many who are now living far longer than our ancestors. This scene makes us aware of why John might have been so fascinated with Hemingway, whose final act he seeks to emulate. No matter how you feel about Elsa’s act of love, this film, which could have become another one of those cutesy geriatric tales, is one you will remember for a long time.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May issue of Visual Parables.


The Heart of Nuba (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running Time 1 hour 46 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 0; Sex Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Mark 6:34

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

John 10:11

Dr. Tom & his African staff examines a young patient.          (c) Carlson Films

In this inspiring documentary—one of the most Spirit-filled that I have seen since The Power of Forgiveness—Dr. Tom Catlin is a great stand-in as shepherd of a needy flock. His endangered flock is the people living in the remote Nuba Mountains of Sudan constantly under air attack by the brutal forces of President Omar Al-Bashir. The film begins with children frantically seeking shelter in covered holes in the ground as war planes fly overhead.

Since 2008 Dr. Tom, as he is called, has been the chief doctor of Our Mother of Mercy Hospital. His task of providing the only medical relief for almost a million people would be great enough, given the meager supplies and paucity of trained staff, but with the bombing of so many villages (and of the hospital itself) by government forces, the task of tending to the ill and injured is all the more daunting. The film is obviously a heart-felt project, director Kenneth A. Carlson revealing in his statement on the film’s website that he and Dr. Tom were teammates on Brown University’s football team.

The film maker spent six weeks during two trips to the remote area to give us a visual chronicle of the days and nights of the seemingly inexhaustible doctor, his brave staff, and his patients. From shots of him praying the rosary at the dawn of the day to his words of anguish over the senseless suffering of the people, we see that his dedicated service is tied to his faith. He calls his morning devotion “the best half hour of the day.” At one point he reflects on the gospel story of the rich man and Jesus as being “a very powerful message.”

As the only surgeon within 200 miles, he is constantly on duty, making the rounds of the 500-bed hospital and interacting, often jokingly, with the patients and staff. We see him visit the nearby leprosy clinic where he touches the patients, observing that this is an important part of their treatment. The disease is passed through contact, he says, but careful washing afterwards removes the danger of catching it.

“I like the idea of being in one place and being a part of the people…There is hope in this place and in these lives,” the doctor observes. He had spent 8 years in Kenya, where he had learned surgery on the job. In one sequence we see him removing the diseased kidney of a child, a desperate last-resort operation to save the child—and later in the film, he talks to the recovered child and her mother. When he becomes seriously sick himself and is forced to return to his large family back in America, we see what he has given up to serve in Africa. The Amsterdam, NY sequence is a Norman Rockwell occurrence, a happy family reunion in which he and his parents, brothers and relatives—one a priest—gather around a long table. He speaks of his conflicting desires—to be with his parents during their reclining years and with his beloved Nuba people who need him so much.

The film maker has said of the doctor that he is “as close to a saint as anyone I would ever hope to meet,” though obviously the doctor does not feel this way. He says that his goal is to work himself out of the job, amply illustrated by the many Nuban nurses and doctors he is training. Several of the hospital staff members testify to this, as does the area Catholic bishop. A detail tucked late into the film is the romantic relationship that apparently has developed before the arrival of Carlson ‘s cameras between Dr. Tom and Nasima, an African studying to be a nurse in a distant institution. They keep in touch via Skype. He says that marriage might be in his future, something his parents had wished for during the sequence back in the USA. I will leave it to you to discover how this turns out.

The scenes veer from shots of him moving quickly among the hospital patients to ones of joking and celebrating to several of terror as the children and adults scramble into the many fox holes dug in the ground around the hospital. One in particular is stark, some of the children and adults screaming in terror as planes bomb the facility, their trembling continuing long after the planes have flown away. Sometimes the source of destruction is a single multi-engine bomber high in the sky. Another time it is single engine jets flying in close to the ground.

This is a great film for religious groups to screen and discuss. We see that though a person might serve in an isolated region, goodness sometimes is sought out and rewarded. Dr. Tom Catena was among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, as well as the recipient of the 2017 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. Judging by what we see of the African staff he is training, he will achieve his goal of working himself out of his job, but in the meantime, he serves as the faithful shepherd, like his Lord, ready to lay down his life for the sheep if necessary.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May issue of Visual Parables.

For more information on this important film and hospital, go to For lots of information on what has been called “the forgotten war” go to the site maintained by a network of journalists in the area


Chappaquiddick (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running Time 1 hour 46 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 2; Sex Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it,

for him it is sin.

James 4:17

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us…

Anglican Confession for Morning Prayer

Teddy fools no one with his neck brace.              (c) Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Director John Curran’s sober, matter of fact recounting to the tragic events surrounding the events of July 18, 1969 will be viewed by the many Kennedy haters as a vindication of their negative view of the family. At the same time, admirers of the Kennedy family, because of the screenplay writers’ (Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) avoidance of any exaggeration of the known facts (there is no hint of any sexual involvement between Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), can see the film as a moral parable dealing with both sins of omission and commission. If ever there was a modern example of classical and Shakespearean tragedy, the story of Teddy Kennedy is it.

After participating in a yacht race off Martha’s Island, Kennedy and four other male friends gather at a rented cottage on Chappaquiddick Island for a party with six of what they called the “boiler room girls,” single women who had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s Presidential campaign the year before. Ted and his cousin/close friend and adviser Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) hope to lure Mary Jo back into politics. Following Bobby’s assassination, she had been so upset that she had dropped out of the field. During the drinking and dancing, Teddy talks with her more than anyone else.

At the end of the evening he offers to drive her back to her home. When they spot a patrol car, he pulls to the side of the road because he feels the effects of his drinking. When the cop calls out to them, he quickly drives away. The wooden bridge with no rail connecting the two islands is at a slight left angle from the road, so when he momentarily takes his eyes off the road, the car shoots over the side, capsizes, and sinks to the bottom of the pond, its wheels sticking slightly above the water.

After trying to open a window of the submerged car, Kenney swims to shore, stunned and confused. Making his way back to his cottage, he calls Joe and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) the State Attorney General, outside and reveals what has happened. They drive him back to the bridge, where they dive into the water, but also are unsuccessful at getting a window or door open. When they part, both urging him to call the authorities, Kennedy assures them that he will and then surprises them by swimming back to Edgartown. He returns to his hotel but does not call the police. Instead, he calls his father Joe, the paralyzed family patriarch who can barely speak. The old man’s advice is one word, “Alibi.” There is no hint of concern for the young woman—she has now become “a problem.” Indeed, Kennedy’s first words to Joe back at the cabin had been, “We’ve got a problem. I’m not going to be president.” He even attends a brunch the next morning and never brings up the accident. Over ten hours have passed before he finally contacts the police, who had already discovered the submerged car with Mary Jo’s body inside.

The outrageous events set into motion by his power-obsessed father show the benefits of money, blood, and connections. The team of fixers include such Kennedy loyalists as presidential speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols), former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), and of course, fellow party-goer and friend, the Massachusetts Attorney General Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan). Their elaborate plan includes the local police chief, the coroner, who does not conduct an autopsy, and others, all who eventually manage to arrange for the Senator a relative minor charge—that of leaving the scene of an accident with a slap on the wrist penalty. Their machinations place him even more deeply in the shadow of his two brothers because of their earlier service to them.

The heinousness of this conspiracy is intensified by the film’s assumption, based on testimony given by the captain of the Edgartown Fire Rescue team, that Mary Jo probably lived in the trapped airspace for approximately two to four hours until she consumed all the oxygen of the air bubble at the back of the car! (He testified, “I could have had her out of that car twenty-five minutes after I got the call. But he [Ted Kennedy] didn’t call.”) Though this is not a proven fact, its probability heightens the charge of sin by omission. We can well imagine the anguish the doomed woman must have endured. If only he had called in help right away!

The film also depicts the attempt by Kennedy to shape the story by concocting a false story of her being the driver, and then trying to depict himself as the victim. I think it is Joe who is especially upset by the latter botched attempt. Kennedy even dons an unnecessary neck brace to show how injured he was, but then forgets it as he turns easily to see who is behind him at the church funeral, something that reporters quickly notice.

A lesser film might have left matters at this, portraying Teddy Kennedy as the foulest politician ever to have served in the US Senate–which is how some people I know view him, thereby refusing to acknowledge any of the good things he achieved in his long Senate career. The film does not leave matters there but explores the complexity of the man who had grown up in the shadow of his more accomplished brothers.

The oldest, Joe, whom the father intended to make President, died a hero’s death during World War Two, so the father’s attention and ambitious plans moved on to John, and only after the tragedy of 1963, to Bobby. As the youngest of the sons Teddy received the least amount of attention and affection, and now at the lowest point in his life, he feels the full force of the elder Kennedy’s contempt.

We might wish that this were a tale of fall and redemption, as it did become in the political sense. After his famous (or infamous, depending on your view point) TV speech explaining his erratic behavior of that night, the voters of Massachusetts did remain loyal, re-electing him to office by a large majority, and continuing to do so for over forty years. Cynics might observe that they got the kind of representative they deserved, and yet his subsequent record of championing laws dealing with health, education, and numerous social justice issues are praiseworthy. One wonders how much of his tireless efforts to better the nation was fueled by his guilt and attempt to atone for it. We are left wishing that he had decided to tell the truth and accept the consequences, but he did not.

In this sordid tale the only figure, other than Ms. Kopechne, who seems admirable is Kennedy’s cousin Joe, who slowly loses his respect for the proceedings and his cousin, so that at the end of the film we are told that he broke off relations with Kennedy.

What a contrast to the two big stories unfolding on that 1969 weekend—the tragic death and cover up of guilt in Massachusetts and the launching of a new set of heroes as the first man in the moon stepped down onto lunar soil while most of America and the world were watching. Behold the shame and the grandeur of America!

Australian actor Jason Clarke, who played the far less admirable Henry McAllan, the Mississippi racist father in Mudbound, skillfully captures the weakness and the anguish of the troubled man who would survive the scandal to become “The Lion of the Senate.” In the scene with his disapproving father who despises his weakness his eyes and tone of voice plead in vain for acceptance. We see a man whose instincts tell him to do the right thing, but who gives in to expediency instead. Later, we can imagine him convincing himself that keeping his Senate seat enabled him to do much good. It is so easy to deceive ourselves when we belong to the 1% of the population. Kyrie Eleison!

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May issue of Visual Parables.