Review: ‘Chappaquiddick’ Revisits a Grim ’60s Kennedy Scandal
Posted April 4, 2018 11:54 p.m. EDT
I admit that I approached “Chappaquiddick” with a measure of skepticism and a tremor of dread. The ongoing, morbid fascination with all things Kennedy is an aspect of American culture I find perplexing and somewhat dispiriting. Compulsive Kennedyism encourages our unfortunate habit of substituting mythology for history, of dissolving the complexities of American political life into airy evocations of idealism and tragedy. The lives and deaths of Kennedy family members provide grist for endless conspiracy theorizing, tabloid salaciousness, celebrity-worship and superstition. A movie about one of the sadder, tawdrier episodes in the saga could only feed this syndrome.
But it turns out that “Chappaquiddick,” directed by John Curran from a script by the first-timers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, is more diagnosis than symptom. Forsaking sensationalism for sober, procedural storytelling, the film examines the toxic effects of the Kennedy mystique on a handful of people involved in a fatal car crash in the summer of 1969.
The basic facts are hardly obscure. Late on the night of July 18, an Oldsmobile driven by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ran off a bridge on an island near Martha’s Vineyard and plunged into a pond. Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide to the senator’s brother Robert, died inside the car. Kennedy waited until the next day to report the incident and provided an account that was, to put it mildly, less than fully credible.
Exactly what happened remains unknown, and the gaps and ambiguities in the record provide the filmmakers with room for speculation and embellishment. (A recent article by Jenna Russell in The Boston Globe performs a sensitive and thorough fact-check.) In this version, Kopechne (played by Kate Mara) stays alive while trapped in the car, fighting for air as Kennedy (Jason Clarke) dawdles. Nothing beyond a close collegial friendship between them is implied. They were drawn together by shared grief over the death of Robert Kennedy, who had been assassinated the year before, and left a party together for a heart-to-heart talk.
The test that “Chappaquiddick” sets for itself is not accuracy but plausibility. Whether or not events actually unfolded this way, the story the film tells is an interesting and complicated character study, with something to say about the corrosive effects of power and privilege on both the innocent and the guilty.
At the center is Kennedy himself, whom Clarke plays as a decent, thoughtful man never quite comfortable in his own skin. That is partly because he has been denied possession of an independent identity. The last surviving Kennedy son, Ted lives in the shadow of his three dead brothers, Joseph, John and Robert. His weekend of sailing and party-going coincides with the Apollo 11 moon landing, a reminder of John Kennedy’s legacy and of Ted’s inadequacy.
Before the accident, he shows himself to be a bit of a bumbler, steering his sailboat into a buoy during a regatta and freezing up during a television interview. He is more at ease with his friends Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), who will also be called upon for damage control when things go wrong. The question of Ted’s possible presidential candidacy hovers in the air, and comes up in his conversations with Mary Jo and her colleague Rachel Schiff (Olivia Thirlby).
The film tries to make Mary Jo an equal participant in the story — more than just a victim or a mystery woman — and succeeds in individualizing her enough to underscore the horror of her death. What happens afterward is in some ways even more disturbing. Once the management of Ted’s case is turned over to his father’s inner circle, Mary Jo’s humanity is quietly but decisively erased. She is treated as a problem rather than a person.
The villains in “Chappaquiddick” are Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown); Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols); and Ted Kennedy’s father, Joe (Bruce Dern), a fearsome patriarch even though he has been paralyzed by a stroke. He humiliates his son and turns matters over to a squad of fixers in suits who manipulate the local authorities and the news media to protect Ted’s political viability and the family’s power. Which is not to say that the movie lets Ted Kennedy off the hook. Its portrayal of his weakness — his cowardice, his self-pity, his lethal indecisiveness — is devastating. It offers a partial explanation for these failures without excusing them, and also without denying some of his better qualities.
When Ted first calls his father, the old man has one word for him: “alibi.” For a time, “Chappaquiddick” explores an alternative meaning, the possibility that Ted, rather than saving his career and reputation, will take advantage of disgrace and free himself from a role he never really wanted. His guilt would excuse him from the burdens of family expectation.
What happened was more complicated, and Curran and Clarke honor that complexity. Ted Kennedy never became president, but the people of Massachusetts re-elected him to the Senate seven more times. His political career was longer and arguably more consequential than those of his brothers. That isn’t to say he redeemed himself, or that anything he accomplished diminishes the awfulness of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death. Redemption and damnation are the stuff of mythology. This is just a sad piece of history.
Rated PG-13. The reckless abuse of alcohol and power. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.