‘Chappaquiddick’ Is An Nuanced Political Drama


The new film Chappaquiddick surprised me because it is not a polemic. Most political films are so oriented toward providing a particular viewpoint. If there is a film about Trump, Bush, Clinton or Obama, you may be certain that the filmmaker wants you to believe whatever he/she does. This movie stands out because it does try to be at least some degree objective. While there is plenty of room for steamy or outrageous scenes, director John Curran focuses more on the people, and in doing so, he provides far more drama than we are used to.

For those who don’t recall the events since they happened nearly a half century ago, by 1969, the Kennedys had become almost the royal family of America but were reeling from the assassinations of President John Kennedy and presidential hopeful Sen. Robert Kennedy. All of their friends and supporters, and there were very many, were convinced that Robert would win the presidency in 1968 to restore “Camelot.” After his death, all eyes fell on the youngest of the Kennedy sons, Edward “Ted” Kennedy (Jason Clarke). His father Joseph Kennedy Sr. (Bruce Dern) had always belittled him, calling him the least of the Kennedys. Even after his election to the U.S. Senate, it was felt he was simply raiding the coattails of his older brothers.

Suddenly, however, he was the man to lead the “restoration.” He was personally far weaker than his brothers, as known for illicit affairs as much as John but without much of Robert’s fire. But he was still a Kennedy. One night in 1969, a group of the true believers met on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard to both party and plan ahead for the 1972 election. At the end of the evening, Ted Kennedy gave a ride to one of the “boiler room girls,” Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), to get her back to her motel. On that night, he missed a turn and went off the Dike Bridge, his car going into the river. Kennedy escaped, but Kopechne was left behind. He later claimed that he dived down to try to save her several times but could not. What we do know is that he left the area, passed several houses, went to sleep and later had brunch, calling in his top advisor Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), who notified police.

The results were dynamite. Kopechne had not drowned but had been trapped in an air bubble and over the course of a period of time had suffocated as the air ran out. It was possible that had Kennedy immediately called the police, she might have been saved.

What happened changed presidential history. Most experts thought Kennedy would likely win against Richard Nixon, a man despised by the elite. We watch as the Kennedy clan, their key advisors, the fawning media and the extraordinarily cooperative police spin the whole thing. Kennedy gets two months’ probation, and most of the television and newspaper people were quite willing to either ignore the whole thing or push the message that it really was not important. However, despite the best efforts of these people, Kennedy never was able to win the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.

Much of the film focuses on the spin, on how the impact of what he had done affected Kennedy emotionally (not very much), and that is what gives it power. We live in a world of scandal. The media spend hours worrying over an affair of a president 10 years before he came to power while the same people either ignored the Kopechne event or even occasionally came up with inappropriate lines like, “Mary Jo Kopechne, had she lived, would have thanked Ted Kennedy for his work in pumping up Social Security.” This film, by avoiding sensationalism, is very good. It makes clear that the important people behind Kennedy were far more interested in his career than anything about the “regular woman” he left behind.

Clarke is exceptionally good as Ted Kennedy. It is a tough role, trying to provide at least a balance between a privileged man trying to avoid responsibility while pretending he really cared what he had done. Mara was good as Kopechne, although, of course, her relatively early death limited her participation. I thought Ed Helms, usually a comic, was quite effective as Gargan. Dern was, as usual, really good.

This is an excellent film. It provides a template for a lot of biographers to give us real stories. Most will not take it. But I recommend the film highly.