For Americans of a certain generation the events that took place during the twilight hours on July 18, 1969 on Chappaquiddick Island will never be forgotten; for others, they only wish they could. 37-year old Edward “Ted” Kennedy, the young Senator from Massachusetts, careened his car off an unguarded bridge into the murky waters of Poucha Pond. He wasn’t alone, though he would be the only survivor. His passenger, 28 year-old political strategist Mary Jo Kopechne, would drown as Kennedy fled the scene, neglecting to call authorities for over ten hours.
For most with the loftiest political aspirations such an accident would have been career-ending, if not prosecutable. For the only surviving member of the Kennedy lineage, however, the death of a gifted political strategist under nebulous circumstances presents a challenge not just for the man himself, but those who would protect him at any cost. Politics is the unkindest machine of them all – either crank the handles or find yourself minced.
During its brief theatrical run Chappaquiddick managed to stir emotions of both the political left and right, though for wildly different reasons. I’ll admit I was originally surprised to see this movie exist at all, let alone come from a production crew few would call conservative. Still, its very existence has been mischaracterized by some in right-wing media – many I’d wager either haven’t or will never see the film – as a vindication of sorts, a historical corrective on not just Ted Kennedy’s tarnished legacy but of the entire Kennedy legacy.
Australian director John Curran (The Killer Inside Me, Tracks) does perfunctory work from a script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, a pair known for producing and animation, that never feels exploitive or bombastic. It’s a good fit, especially in how Curran doesn’t exploit the main accident for cheap effect (a quick cut and it’s over), instead favoring frequent flashbacks to what was surely Kopechne’s suffering as it must have weighed on Kennedy’s mind.
Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Terminator Genisys), another Australian, bears an uncanny resemblance to the troubled Senator, even if the modest New England accent he affects is less convincing. Hasn’t this always been the case with actors attempting to capture both the foppish charisma and distinctive New England rhoticity so famously associated with the Kennedys? That Clarke doesn’t attempt a total mimicry of Ted Kennedy was a wise choice as it allows viewers to focus on his nuanced performance rather than a so-so impersonation.
While Chappaquiddick is largely an ensemble piece, the casting of two actors known primarily for comedy in key roles works to the film’s advantage. Ed Helms’ close cousin Joe Gargan and Jim Gaffigan’s Massachusetts DA Paul Markham, Kennedy’s closest confidants throughout the affair, form a surrogacy around him that helps distance the audience from the responsibility of taking sides.
What more can be said of Kate Mara as the doomed Kopechne? She does the best with what she has to work with, which is to give life to a character whose sole purpose is to die, thereby triggering events that would reduce her to a mere problematic “dead body”. As the Kennedy family’s stroke-crippled patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. it’s a fierce, steely-eyed Bruce Dern that gives the most poignant performance with his guttural uttering of just a single word: alibi.
I was also surprised that so many critics would even question why the film was made at all, in some cases asking ‘who’ it was for, given the events took place generations ago. Such nonsense would be easily dismissible if there weren’t just the slightest tinge of discomfort in the thought a film like this, regardless of quality or execution, requires the honest journalist to reevaluate their own politics in light of truth and objective reflection. How does one so easily rationalize negligence that led to a woman’s death, but also those subsequent acts in service to distancing from responsibility while simultaneously confronting their own “problem of conscience”?
Then, as now, exists the human response to cloister around those we believe in, to disregard the nastier, unseemly elements we might otherwise hang an opponent for, all in service to the greater good. As difficult as it may be for some younger Americans to believe, there was a time when the media machine was largely an apparatus of the Democratic Party, which at that time meant the Kennedys. One can only imagine the discomfort felt by the rational journalist at the thought of Ted Kennedy surrounded by so many powerful men and women desperately attempting to ‘fix’ the problem by any means necessary. What might have been their role in such an inhumane game?
Today, little remains of the dream of Camelot, apart from a lingering notion that something about this particular family once caused so many to compromise their own moral identities in service to the political machine. With half a century behind those who may have allied with the Kennedys during the era, either politically or otherwise, are free to admit the imperfections of a single man aren’t necessarily reflections of their own morality but of human nature. To see some of the right-wing persuasion rally behind this film is somewhat understandable as Kennedy would never suffer any real blowback for his actions.
More importantly, it’s a story worth telling, especially in an era when some think political malfeasance begins and ends with Donald J. Trump. Such ignorance isn’t just intolerable – so much of today’s journalism is infected with anti-Trump hysteria it’s bound to make any analysis of this period by future historians an exercise in frustration – but also a disservice to one’s own edification. What a relief it would be to discover that political cronyism and nepotism predates one’s own timeline.
Much like this year’s The Death of Stalin proved to remind us there’s no expiration date when it comes to history, especially those tales with allegorical underpinnings. Shakespeare penned his Tragedy of Julius Caesar some 1,500 years after the death of Rome’s most famous politician, a gap that makes the 49 years between the events of Chappaquiddick and today look positively scant. Would these same critics, many of whom I’d wager still burn with the memory of Watergate, still argue against relevance had the subject not been politically aligned
As much as Chappaquiddick attempts an apolitical examination of a man in crisis, both politically and existentially, it’s difficult to reconcile the younger Ted Kennedy’s behavior with the older and seemingly rehabilitated version many Americans would come to affectionately call “The Lion of the Senate.” There’s little doubt his actions following the accident were despicable and inhumane, qualities we’d deem appalling in any other context – but practically requirements for a politician.
His failure to contact authorities for ten hours, during which there remained a chance of saving Kopechne’s life, might’ve been due to shock and trauma; the rest, not so much. His attempt to curry sympathy by wearing a phony neck brace backfires disastrously, a misstep that reminds us that the actual crisis was, in fact, crisis-management about salvaging a political dynasty. After he returns from the scene of the accident a noticeably distraught Kenny is asked what’s wrong, his answer a dawning statement of fact: “I’m not gonna be president.”
In time, Ted Kennedy would go on to win re-election as Senator in a landslide victory, retaining the position until his death in 2009 and becoming one of the longest-serving in US history. He personified privilege in a way few could ever hope to understand; this was a man who received First Communion at age seven from Pope Pius XII himself while visiting the Vatican, only to lose two brothers in service to the political machine (a third, the eldest, died in combat). That he was surrounded by powerful men his entire life, guiding a career almost certainly destined for success, was the status quo. The Presidency was his for the taking, and certainly his to lose.
This is never more certain as when Ted watches television coverage of the Apollo 11 landing with his son while archival news footage of his deceased brother John, the 35th US President, reminded all Americans of his promise to send a man to the moon and return him safely. Entranced, the son turns to the father with admiration for an uncle he would never know, exclaiming “Uncle Jack could do anything, huh dad?” Even in death, JFK could still upstage his little brother.
Ultimately, Chappaquiddick is less about a privileged scion being denied the Presidency then our collective responsibility to ourselves; if the Kennedys were willing to sacrifice all their sons for American exceptionalism, who are we to rally against the last surviving one? The debate will rage on, I’m sure, but for now there’s an unexpected silver lining to this film’s release: it comes during a time when disgraceful conduct towards women, much of which had been strategically hushed up to save the careers of offenders. If nothing else, let this film remind us that the real victim at Chappaquiddick was not Ted Kennedy, but Mary Jo Kopechne. RIP.