On July 18, 1969, Massachusetts Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy left a party on Chappaquiddick Island with Mary Jo Kopechne. A short time later Kennedy drove his mother’s 1967 Oldsmobile off Dike Bridge and into Poucha Pond. Kennedy escaped but Kopechne was trapped in the submerged vehicle. Kennedy would leave the scene and not report the accident until the next morning after the car and Kopechne’s dead body had been discovered.
“Chappaquiddick” from director John Curran is the latest look into the scandal that was forever a stain on the legacy of Ted Kennedy. Writers Taylor Allen and Tyler Logan scoured over transcripts featuring key players including Kennedy himself speaking under oath. Leaning heavily on court records and testimonies along with the indisputable facts of the case allowed for their script to be more than conspiracy theories and character assassination as a few have claimed.
Jason Clarke gives not only one of the best performances of the year but one of the most surprising as Ted Kennedy. You immediately notice how distinctly in tune he is with his character. He manages a very measured performance, playing Kennedy in a way that never projects judgement. He portrays Kennedy as a complex man. At times immature and naive. Other times self-serving and calculated. But in the few moments where he is forced to emotionally reckon with what’s happened Clarke doesn’t spell out the genuineness of the remorse.
Curran moves the story along at a good pace, quickly getting to the infamous Chappaquiddick incident then navigating the decisions that immediately followed. You could call Ed Helms the moral conscious of the film. He plays Kennedy’s cousin Joe Gargan who along with US Attorney General and Kennedy confident Joe Markham (Jim Gaffigan) are the first people Teddy contacts after the wreck. They push Kennedy to report the accident to authorities, something history informs us never happened until the next day.
A big hunk of the film focuses on the aftermath, specifically political damage control. As Kennedy wages an internal struggle with telling the truth, or at least their “version of it”, an entourage of lawyers and analysts diligently work to quell any public outrage and protect the family name. There are some really good scenes as they hammer out strategies and navigating Kennedy’s sketchy timeline of events.
Attempts at empathy can be found in the few scenes of Kennedy family drama but unfortunately these are easily the movie’s weakest moments. Bruce Dern dials it up as Kennedy patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. who was paralyzed and wheelchair bound following a severe stroke. The filmmakers leave no ambiguity in Kennedy Sr’s lack of confidence in his son and they present the strained relationship as a heavy weight Teddy’s neck. But where most of the film comes across as strikingly authentic, the handful of scenes between Clarke and Dern feel too contrived. One line early in the film is broader but more effective at conveying the tension. An interviewer asks Ted “What’s it like walking in a shadow?” He promptly ends the interview and walks away.
The true cleverness of “Chappaquiddick” is seen in how it moves with Kennedy’s evolving story in a way that by the end of the film we are still unclear on what’s the truth. It also presents a slice of the Kennedy mystique within American culture. When the partygoers on Chappaquiddick Island are told about the accident the next morning and about the death of their friend and colleague, the first words of response are “What do we need to do now? What do we need to do to help the Senator?” It’s as if Mary Jo Kopechne lost out to the Kennedy family name. In a very perceptive way this movie finally gives her a voice.
VERDICT – 4 STARS