In his 1990 GQ profile of Sen. Ted Kennedy, the late Michael Kelly quotes a Boston Herald writer: “It isn’t really considered summer in Cape Cod until the senator drives on the sidewalk for the first time.”
Whether good or bad, everyone has an opinion of Ted Kennedy. He remained tabloid fodder until late in life, and was always surrounded by controversy. There was no incident more controversial than when young Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in his car in the summer of 1969.
The incident was surrounded by inconsistent stories, lack of evidence, and wavering public opinion. Almost 50 years later, the new film “Chappaquiddick” explores one version of what may have occurred that night.
Any dramatized account of the Kennedy family comes with a certain amount of risk. For a filmmaker, it would be easy to create caricature versions of the New England “royal family,” over-villainize them, or flatter them too highly. Even after almost half a century, it is nearly impossible to tell a mostly unbiased account of any front-page story involving a member of the Kennedy clan.
John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick” accomplishes its goal of telling the story of the notorious events of July 1969 while showing an admirable level of focus and discipline. The movie weaves through the tale cohesively, with un-embellished recreations of the events, making no assumptions about what has never been proved.
Riveting Portrayals of Well-Known Americans
Jason Clarke’s portrayal of Ted Kennedy is applause-worthy. Without need for extensive narrative, he presents us with a mid-thirties Kennedy full of deep conflicts about his legacy, the expectations for his future, and his inability to make even one good decision. While aware of his level of privilege and protection, he is mostly ungrateful, simply expecting everyone near him to do everything they can for him. Disappearing into his role, Clarke shows us a Ted who never quite evolves into the villain we expect, just an overgrown spoiled child.
Clarke is supported by a tremendous cast, including Kate Mara as the ill-fated Kopechne, who worked for Bobby Kennedy and attended a party with Ted on that evening. Mara gives Kopechne rich dimension, a voice, a story, and a soul, finally showing us a woman who was more than just a name attached to a tragedy.
Family patriarch Joe Kennedy, who was near the end of his life by the summer of 1969, is played by Bruce Dern. Dern has few lines, yet gives one of the more memorable performances of the movie. A one-time political giant, who was at this point barely able to speak after a massive stroke, still struck fear in the heart of his last son by uttering only single words of disapproval.
While the subject matter is quite dark, the film contains an element of humor. As the days go on following the accident, you are forced to find humor in the more absurd moments. Jim Gaffigan and Ed Helms, two comedy heavyweights, play Ted’s two closest allies. Both actors give solid performances, particularly Helms portraying Joe Gargan, who is more than a little conflicted about protecting his fatally flawed cousin.
We’re Finally Free to Scrutinize This Incident More Closely
Avoiding commentary and speculation about Kennedy’s widely criticized behavior toward women in the years following the incident at Chappaquiddick, the film achieves its goal of telling only the story of the events of the night, and the immediate response. It is by no means a flattering portrayal of the senator, and it asks viewers to judge him only by the incident in question. It leaves you wondering whether you would be able to look past a murky and highly suspicious drowning death involving the last surviving brother of America’s most famous family.
Principal photography for this film took place in 2015, before #MeToo and the recent spate of sexual misconduct allegations against many powerful men. It seems almost certain that, if Ted Kennedy were still living, his name would have come up during this conversation of inappropriate behavior toward women.
Even without that context, “Chappaquiddick” paints a picture of a Ted Kennedy who hasn’t quite achieved the level of “scoundrel,” but you can certainly see how that would be his future. However, it never assumes an inappropriate relationship between Kennedy and Kopechne.
Accepting that certain elements of the evening will forever be a mystery, writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan committed as primary source material to the 763-page inquest released in 1970. They penned a thrilling screenplay that was brilliantly brought to life by director Curran. Partially filmed on location on Chappaquiddick, the film offers little visual of glamour and wealth on Martha’s Vineyard, instead using cool beiges and blues, never letting viewers escape the thought of Mary Jo trapped underwater hoping for a rescue.