At one point in Chappaquiddick, the new film telling of the 1969 tragedy that took the life of a young campaign worker and sent Sen. Ted Kennedy’s life and career into a temporary tailspin, Kennedy says, “We are going to tell the truth, at least our version of it.” That’s a line that clearly resonates in the new era of “fake news,” daily White House scandals and private lives of public people on display for all to see. It has taken nearly half a century to bring to the screen this particular tragic incident that rocked the star-crossed Kennedy political dynasty, but in some ways it is more relevant than ever, particularly in its depiction of efforts to shape the story in order to save Kennedy’s career and his very real presidential ambitions, which basically sank along with the car he drove into the water.
The first part of the film focuses on the accident itself. Kennedy (Jason Clarke) attends a party celebrating campaign workers for his late brother Bobby’s 1968 presidential campaign and offers to drive one of them, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), home. But his car goes off a rickety Chappaquiddick bridge, turns over and sinks. Kennedy gets out, but Kopechne drowns, despite what he saay were his best efforts to save her. Apparently dazed and confused, he fails to report the accident for nine hours. The film, a first produced effort by young screenwriters Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen, shows he did call close friends and colleagues Joe Gargon (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), who go to the bridge and dive in, attempting to rescue the young woman. He also makes a call to his father, the stroke-victim patriarch, Joseph Kennedy (Bruce Dern), who — already having lost three promising sons to tragedy — did not want the same fate put on his last living boy. All he utters into the phone is the word “alibi.”
Much of the rest of the film centers on the coverup, that “alibi” and efforts by the Kennedy machine to craft a story that will rescue the senator from a career-ending disaster. They create the “truth,” or at least their version of it, but the screenplay under the sharp direction of John Curran sticks to a “just the facts”-style scenario, taking much of its information from first-person accounts and official court documents. Although some conjecture and speculation is necessary, the film does not drift into tasteless innuendo or surmise that an affair was going on between Kennedy and Kopechne. However, some of the scenes detailing awkward political calculation as a young woman lies dead are darkly, morbidly funny in an odd way.
Gargon, taking the moral high road, urges Kennedy to do the right thing and resign, and not follow some of his baser instincts — such as wearing a neck brace to Mary Jo’s funeral when he clearly didn’t need one, an act that drew derision in press accounts at the time. The film also shows how the powers that be tried to manipulate and distract journalists, including those at the all-important New York Times, who were busy that weekend due to the big event coincidentally taking place just two days later: Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch) Chappaquiddick is undeniably going to be controversial, and perhaps a red-hot punching bag for elements on both the left, who won’t like rehashing this scandal and damaging Kennedy’s reputation as a man who turned into a great senator for decades after, and on the right, which may find the likes of Fox News and others exploiting it as evidence of a Democratic scandal swept under the rug.
Ultimately, though, what the filmmakers are trying to do is simply show Kennedy and his questionable actions as a moment in time that showed him as a human, flaws and all. My first reaction on seeing the film was that it easily could be perceived as a sort of hit job on Kennedy, but on reflection (and a visit to Wikipedia), I realized this is really a smart, straight-forward account of what happened according to the best of the facts known to us. But it doesn’t get bogged down in them, and thanks to Curran, it plays like a dramatic thriller. No easy feat. It also doesn’t take political sides but simply presents the human being and conflicting forces coming at him during an incredibly difficult period in his life and career.
Logan and Allen were not even born when this event happened and had never heard of it when the Dallas natives started researching the Kennedy legacy for a possible project, but they stumbled on to this story which they felt would have a lot of contemporary relevance. Indeed it does. It also is blessed to have some terrific acting, starting right at the top with Clarke, who doesn’t do an impersonation but gets right to the heart of Ted Kennedy. Helms is particularly good as the conflicted man so disappointed in the actions taken by his friend. Dern also is powerful in a role that requires few words but is fully dimensional. Whether you lived through it, or never heard of it, Chappaquiddick is still bound to start a debate. Producers are Mark Ciardi, Chris Cowles, Chris Fenton, and Campbell G. McInnes. Entertainment Studios will release the film on a fairly wide break of 1,500-plus screens on Friday.
Do you plan to see Chappaquiddick? Let us know what you think.