“Chappaquiddick,” the latest film from director John Curran (“The Painted Veil,” “Tracks”), presents the tragic event of 1969 that could’ve scuttled Senator Ted Kennedy’s political career… were he not a Kennedy. Out April 6th, the film stars Jason Clarke as Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne. Does Curran’s film present a well thought-out look at a shameful moment in American politics, or does it tread too lightly? Here’s what the reviews say:
‘Chappaquiddick’ Doesn’t Embellish The Incident Much
On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is partying with friends on Chappaquiddick Island off the coast of Massachusetts. He’s the youngest Senate Majority Whip in history and a likely contender for the Presidency in 1972. Late that night, while driving with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) — a friend (and possibly more) who worked with his brother Robert — his car heads off a bridge and into a pond. Somehow, Kennedy escapes the car, but Kopechne is trapped and drowns.
Exactly what happened remains unknown, and the gaps and ambiguities in the record provide the filmmakers with room for speculation and embellishment. (A recent article by Jenna Russell in The Boston Globe performs a sensitive and thorough fact-check.) In this version, Kopechne (played by Kate Mara) stays alive while trapped in the car, fighting for air as Kennedy (Jason Clarke) dawdles. Nothing beyond a close collegial friendship between them is implied.
The Script Favors Moral Quandaries Over Juicy Drama
Writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan are not merely satisfied to tell a WASP-porn, Vanity Fair-esque soap opera of regattas and manslaughter, nor is it merely a gimlet-eyed examination of the precedent-setting image-making and media-wrangling of the late 1960s, but the film is pretty skilled at being both.
Allen and Logan’s script repeatedly finds the space for Teddy to make the right decision, often edging so close to it that the film seems close to rewriting actual historical fact, before bending back to choices that only serve to protect his own interests, and at great cost. That Teddy knew the right thing to do and refused to carry through is the film’s consistent message, though it’s never delivered in a heavy-handed manner.
Over the years, there have been plenty of conspiracy theories, from Ted being set up by Richard Nixon’s CIA to Ted intentionally murdering the young woman to keep her quiet. What probably happened is what we see in the film: an accident caused by booze and a panicked man hoping it would all go away.
Kopechne And Advisor Joe Gargan Get Ample Spotlight
The film tries to make Mary Jo [Kate Mara] an equal participant in the story — more than just a victim or a mystery woman — and succeeds in individualizing her enough to underscore the horror of her death. What happens afterward is in some ways even more disturbing. Once the management of Ted’s case is turned over to his father’s inner circle, Mary Jo’s humanity is quietly but decisively erased. She is treated as a problem rather than a person.
As the cocoon of Camelot begins to envelop Ted, Curran shifts his attention to Gargan [Ed Helms], who eventually broke with the family over the incident. Helms, with his pained, compassionate performance, becomes the audience surrogate. He watches in disbelief as a tragic death morphs into a PR strategy session, which culminates in an impassioned TV address Kennedy performed to shore up his image.
Clarke Gives A Good Performance As Ted Kennedy
Jason Clarke opts for a more low-key approach to Teddy Kennedy, eschewing a big accent or showy mannerisms, and fully disappears into the role. It’s his finest work yet, and proof of his ability to excel given the right material.
In the hands of a less gifted actor, the character might seem contrived or inconsistent, but Clarke, one of the most underappreciated actors working today, makes everything click together. Although it would have been nice if the script let us get more of a baseline on Kennedy before the crash, we can at least understand how a person in his circumstances might constantly jump between doing what is right and doing what is easy.
Clarke also nails the voice — not just the familiar Boston accent but the dry understatement of it. He inhabits Ted Kennedy with the softly halting charm of an aging preppie who can seize up with self-doubt, but who still treats the world as his oyster.
The Film Rightly Prods At The Kennedy Family Myth
It’s never a question of whether Kennedy’s behavior was wrong, it’s: how much are we supposed to hate him? Put bluntly, if you had immediate access to the most powerful network of political fixers at your disposal, just what would you do?
From Bobby and Jack’s deaths to his crumbling marriage, his lack of desire to be president and his wish to be his own man, Teddy can’t get out from under the weight of the world, even though he remains convinced that he’s still got some sort of special Kennedy compass guiding him. It mostly guides him woefully astray.
In No Way Does The Film Let Ted Kennedy Off The Hook
“Chappaquiddick” is a meticulously told chronicle, no more and no less, and at times there’s a slight detachment in watching it, because it’s too tough and smart to milk the situation by turning Edward Kennedy into a “tragic figure.” In certain ways, he may well have been, and there are moments when we see the sad grandeur with which this disaster hangs on his stooped shoulders, but the movie is fundamentally the portrait of a weasel: a man who, from the moment the accident happens, takes as his premise that he will not suffer the consequences, and then does what it takes to twist reality so that it conforms to that scenario.
The most chilling moment of Chappaquiddick is the most mundane: the shot of a still-drenched Kennedy sitting silently on the beach, perhaps in a state of shock, perhaps considering just what this will mean for his political career. The horrible optics of the incident — the fact that the married Kennedy was in a car with a much younger, unmarried woman, the fact that he had been drinking — are instantly apparent. But Curran mostly leaves it to the audience to decide how much that mattered to the senator in those crucial early hours.
‘Chappaquiddick’ Is A Very Rare Sort Of Political Biopic
Chappaquiddick is the kind of movie that could never be made while its subject was alive, which of course is the only reason it was worth making. Though the film goes into rich, often darkly absurd detail about the truth-massaging that ensued after July 18, none of it is at the expense of a sober portrayal of Kennedy and all his shortcomings in that moment of history.
When you consider the films about real-life politicians we usually get, Chappaquiddick is surprisingly bold even if its modest approach belies its striking statements. Kennedy died only eight years ago, the family is still fairly influential, and his grandnephew, Joe Kennedy III, is a rising star in the Democratic Party. And yet here is a movie basically arguing that Ted Kennedy left a young woman to drown and his foremost concern was how that would affect his chances of being President. He then went on to be memorialized and beloved.
This is a surprisingly critical film that portrays the incident not as a shocking tragedy, but as a reprehensible crime, framing the Kennedy mythos as a battered shield its protagonist ducked behind.