“President Kennedy cast a long shadow and still does. It’s what I walk in every day.” These sentiments, espoused by Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) in the new drama Chappaquiddick, help set the stage for what is to follow. The film recalls the tragic events that occurred on Chappaquiddick Island in the summer of 1969.
At the time, Kennedy was a Massachusetts legislator mulling a possible presidential run. During a car ride late one evening, Ted Kennedy’s car drove off a bridge with Kennedy in the driver’s seat and political aide Mary Jo Kopechne in the passenger seat.
Kopechne died in the accident and Kennedy fled the scene.
The film stars Clarke as Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne but the feature focuses more on the aftermath of the accident than the accident itself.
As the drama unfolds, Kennedy waits to report the accident until approximately ten hours after the event. At the time, his car had already been found and Mary Jo’s body had been discovered. The movie shows the Senator struggling with preserving his image (“I’m not gonna be president,” he tells his friends shortly after the crash) and protecting his family’s name at a time when most people would be more concerned with the loss of a woman’s life.
The film, which was written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, seeks to humanize Kennedy while keeping its focus on his actions during this period. Australian actor Jason Clarke eloquently captures the strong-minded but cynical politician with his voice echoing Kennedy’s unique delivery. Kennedy’s actions are revealed here but the filmmakers display an empathy for him in part through scenes showcasing his troubled relationship with his overbearing father Joe (played powerfully by Bruce Dern).
Director John Curran doesn’t frame the film as a liberal or a conservative review of the accident and both Kennedy loyalists and detractors could find much to like about the movie.
Kennedy is portrayed as a leader haunted by the ghosts of his two late brothers who is seemingly forced into a political realm he didn’t choose. “Sometimes the path you walk on isn’t the path you choose,” he says.
That being said, the film shows how calculating he was in the aftermath of the tragedy and how willing he was to make himself into a martyr, even noting in a speech to the public that he could be a victim of the Kennedy curse.
Aside from Clarke’s painfully-realized portrait, much of the film’s strength is established through the character of Joe Gargan, played by Ed Helms. Gargan hosted the barbecue that Kennedy attended before the accident and he’s the voice of morality in the movie. He pushes Kennedy to contact the authorities as soon as he finds out about the accident and urges humility at a time when Kennedy was trying to skirt responsibility.
Much of the script was based on the inquest (click here to receive an interview with the film’s producer), an investigation that was conducted months after the accident. That inquest helped remind people of Kennedy’s over failings in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Chappaquiddick is raw and captivating, always trying to balance the reality of the situation with an understanding of Kennedy’s own personal baggage. Even for those who have heard about the story before, this drama brings real insight into the situation and paints a devastating portrait of the way that the Kennedys and their loyalists managed the tragedy.
It’s a painfully realistic portrait of a tragic situation that has too often been viewed through a political prism. This movie cares little about Kennedy’s political views. It cares more about the tragedy and the aftermath and captures that situation stunningly well.