Synopsis – Depicting Ted Kennedy’s involvement in the fatal 1969 car accident that claims the life of a young campaign strategist, Mary Jo Kopechne.
My Take – While studios continue to churn our films and shows about how the general population are manipulated by powerful people and their fixers, it’s still quite tempting to get sucked into the whole chaos. And if you are history buff like or even a little into politics, you definitely know about how there are abundant surrounding the Kennedys, one of the most powerful and prominent families in American history, who often found themselves in such kind of a mix.
For a vast period, the Kennedy family remained America’s favored repository of sorrow and dreams, as the history saw how Joseph Junior , the first of the family’s four brothers, who was all groomed for the presidency, and ended up getting killed during a war mission in 1944, followed by his brothers, John, won the 1960 presidential election, who despite making some excellent decisions, ended up receiving flack for his infidelity, was assassinated at Dallas in 1963 and Robert, who was also assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968, while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Leaving behind with Ted, the last and least known of the Kennedy brothers, who ended up falling somewhat to the wayside, mainly due to his womanizing and drinking image. Here, we finally see the latter stepping up and into the spotlight as a main character in a film, who despite his recorded longest time serving as a senate member, is still remembered for the 1969 car accident that left campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne dead and felled the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s presidential aspirations, while also serving as a timely reminder that voters on either side of the aisle are susceptible to influence, especially when it’s wrapped up in male entitlement and oligarchical polish.
Directed by John Curran (The Painted Veil, Stone), with a solid vision, the biopic presents a mostly unflattering picture of the late Senator, all the while dramatizing this revealing episode in the history of American dynastic politics and political theater. Although, director Curran does put his own spin on things, he ends up successfully drawing a complex portrait of the only surviving Kennedy son, played by the very underrated Jason Clarke, who does an admirable job as Teddy, the slow son and major let-down of the Kennedy clan. Personally, I found the film covering a really interesting truth in history and does well to educate those (like me), who didn’t know much about it, even though it’s a 50 years too late.
Set on 18th July of 1969, the story follows Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), the last surviving Kennedy brother, whose is still reeling from the dual tragedies in his family. When a stroke leaves his father, Joe (Bruce Dern), with little power of speech, all hopes and dreams of the Kennedy clan drop onto his shoulders, even though Ted is unsure whether following the legacy of his brothers is what he actually wants. Looking for a getaway from the main land and a way to thank the boiler room girls, the affectionate nickname for RFK’s campaign secretaries, Ted and Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), his cousin, lawyer and behind-the-scenes fixer arrange for a weekend getaway to Chappaquiddick Island to escape the pressure, and watch the moon landing of the famed Apollo 11.
Ted in particular wants to spend some time with 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), with a hope to convince her to come back to Washington to work in his office and future campaigns this time. While she seems unsure if she ever wants to go back, she joins him on an alcohol-fueled joy ride, which ends with him driving his 1967 Oldsmobile off the bridge. While Ted manages to escape, he leaves Kopechne behind to die, suspecting that she might have drowned, and walks all the way back to the party to inform Joe and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts of the accident, who advise him to call the authorities immediately.
However, for some reason Ted takes the next nine hours to the needful, between which he managed a good night’s sleep, breakfast and informing his father of the incident, so he could get his long time advisers/fixers Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), former Defense Secretary and his team along with Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) his speechwriter, to control the story. Hereby setting in motion the decisions that will lead to tragedy, although whose tragedy it is becomes a central question in the film.
Those familiar with those details will not find any new surprises in the film, but instead a highly realistic walk through of the subsequent events up through Kennedy’s nationally televised speech a week after Kopechne’s death. For those who have never heard the story or the details of what happened, the truth may come as a shock, especially given the 40 years of political life Kennedy had after he abandoned the young woman and hid the accident for several hours, in which Kopechne might well have been rescued. This well-made film doesn’t pretend to answer the lingering questions following the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.
Did she drown or was she already dead when the car went in the water? The -inside the submerged car- flashbacks suggest she drowned. The fill-in coroner pushed air from her lungs, not water, suggesting she didn’t. If Kennedy was in the car with her when it went over the bridge and he got out, then how is it she was trapped? It could be that he murdered her and staged the drowning. Were they having an affair or not? He strongly denied it but his wife was portrayed as very angry about something. The film showed Ted Kennedy to be of such low moral character and so self-absorbed as to be capable of murder. If it was an accident, why did he behave so ridiculously guilty in the aftermath? It never even attempts to answer the key question, why did Kennedy not report the accident sooner? His hesitation can’t be explained away as selfish calculation, because Kennedy’s delay damaged him irreparably.
This is a dutiful film, as it depicts momentous events in the most respectful and tasteful manner, as the facts are laid out, without any form of discernible POV as we watch all characters demonstrating their faithfulness in protecting the Kennedy legacy. The film also centers around the relationships between Ted Kennedy and his cousin Joe Gargan, and his father Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. It also focuses on Ted’s emotional problems dealing with his attempts to live up to the success of the rest of his family. While you may feel for Ted, as his father, despite being incapacitated by a stroke, remained demanding and unloving and even from his wheelchair, manages to push him around, you feel utterly baffled by his negligence and selfishness, due to which Kopechne died. Not even just from the car crash but for the fact that he was so slow in reporting the incident to the cops.
Here, writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan create a timeline that shows the unscrupulous damage control crafted by powerful men to protect their own, with little regard for the true victim. The script focuses on six days, from the fatal crash to the senator’s televised plea to a country to forgive him his trespasses, ending in actual footage from real people who commented most positively on his forced confession. The accident becomes a crossroads where he is to decide who he should become: His father’s sole surviving son and thus the old man’s final shot at seeing one of his children in the White House again, or someone who’s going to do the right thing.
To the film’s credit, it does not shy away from Kennedy’s caddish behavior, the numerous illegal acts, and isn’t afraid to show how Kennedy took efforts to cover up the incident, from his initial plan to tell the authorities that Kopechne was behind the wheel, that a doctor prescribed sedatives for a non-existent concussion and then wearing a neck brace at the Kopechne funeral, again attempting to play the part of the victim. James Curran‘s direction too is well paced and edited as he smoothly moves the investigation along amid the chaos of what’s at stake as well as provide jarring flashbacks and allowing Mary-Jo in her own way provide brutal testimony to the audience, who despite a short screen time manages to create her own distinct personality.
Not that the film doesn’t suffer from problems common to run-of-the-mill political biopics, from clumsy expository dialogue to sporadic pacing. Even the narrative could have used more backstory to give more substance to the possible relationship of the politician and his victim. It only hints at that aspect and is a tad unjust to Ms. Kopechine’s character by making her an incomplete pawn rather than a fully dimensional character. Plus, I felt that it just left more questions rather than answers to the people who are unfamiliar with the tragedy just like Senator Kennedy’s speech on explaining the incident.
However, the performances are powerful enough to make it worth a watch. Without a doubt this film is a showcase for Jason Clarke. Even though he doesn’t bear much of a physical resemblance to the original Ted, but he completely captures the inner cringe of a man who knows he’ll never live up to his legendary family but who demands the boot-licking adulation they feel is their due anyway. It is an excellent performance of a troubled and Clarke is a forceful presence that fully captures the Massachusetts senator’s persona. Balancing this out is a brilliant performance from Ed Helms, a comic actor who is surprisingly excellent in a dramatic role. Despite her limited screen time, Kate Mara also made her character interesting. While, Bruce Dern does well, it’s Clancy Brown who ends up being a show stealer. Rounding out the strong ensemble are Jim Gaffigan and Olivia Thirlby with superb turns. On the whole, ‘Chappaquiddick‘ is a riveting factual retelling of a wildly interesting subject which despite being flawed remains engaging and enlightening.
Directed – John Curran
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 106 minutes