A film review by Craig J. Koban May 25, 2018


2018, R, 101 mins.


Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne  /  Ed Helms as Joe Gargan  /  Bruce Dern as Joe Kennedy  /  Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy  /  Jim Gaffigan as Paul Markham  /  John Fiore as Chief Arena  /  Taylor Nichols as Ted Sorensen  /  Lexie Roth as Nance Lyons  /  Andria Blackman as Joan Kennedy  /  Tamara Hickey as Marilyn Richards

Directed by John Curran  /  Written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan





Controversy has forever dogged Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy up until his death in 2009, ostensibly stemming from the "Chappaquiddick Incident," which the new historical drama CHAPPAQUIDDICK takes its name.  

Back in the early morning hours of July 18, 1969 the then 37-year-old Kennedy was driving around with 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne when he suddenly careened his vehicle off the road on Chappaquiddick Island, plunging it off a bridge and into the water.  Kennedy managed to escape unharmed, but poor Kopechne remained in the car, trapped inside, and subsequently drowned.  The very next day local law enforcement and divers discovered the woman's body...and just minutes before Kennedy himself reported the accident to the authorities...a whole ten hours after it occurred.  When all was said and done and the proverbial shit storm ended, Kennedy was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to a two month suspended jail sentence. 

CHAPPAQUIDDICK deals with the build-up to this polarizing incident in question, the fallout in its immediate aftermath, and how Kennedy - fully realizing that the event could single handedly ruin the rest of his personal and political life - went into full-on crisis management mode.  John Curran's film also deals with what precisely was going on in this man's mind that prevented him from making any statement whatsoever to the police nearly half a day after it occurred, a damning fact that has reared its ugly head and constantly overshadowed Kennedy's trustworthiness and moral integrity while he was alive and seeking higher public office.  Even though Curran's approach to this material is a bit too leisurely for its own good and lacking in stylistic panache, he nevertheless crafts a compelling fact-based drama that harnesses timely themes about how people of wealth and high power can literally get away with any type of misdeed if surrounded by just the right PR people and afforded opportunities to tell their side of the story to the public that's often not granted to the average citizen. 



The film is told in a linear and workmanlike approach, dealing mostly with established facts and, when not available, dramatic license and filling in the gaps, so to speak, is warranted.  CHAPPAQUIDDICK opens by introducing us to those within Kennedy's (Jason Clarke) tight inner circle in Martha's Vineyard, mostly his family friend and lawyer Joe Gargon (and very well cast against type Ed Helms) and Kopechne herself (Kate Mara), who in turn made up one of the six "Boiler Room Girls" of staff workers that spearheaded Kennedy's hopeful presidential campaign.  Now, when Kennedy and Kopechne do enter his car late at night that leads to you-know-what happening it's barely hinted at in the film whether or not a extramarital affair was occurring between them.  What is specifically established, though, is that Kennedy did indeed have a few too many drinks and took a strange detour to escape a local cop that would have most likely busted him with a DUI, which tragically led to plunging his car off of that bridge.   

Hours later when he confides with Gargan he pitifully states, "I'm not going to be President."   

He was right. 

Now, Gargan and Massachusetts Attorney General Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) plead with their friend to report the incident ASAP, which he agrees to do...only secretly doing so several more incriminating hours later.  Kennedy even makes a teary-eyed plea for help to his semi-tyrannical wheelchair bound and stroke afflicted father (a frighteningly intense Bruce Dern), who gives him only one piece of stern advice over the phone with one word - "alibi."  Eventually, dear old dad would step in further and bring in a whole damage control team for his hapless son, including Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) and Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols), both who fully realize how badly the Kennedy family name will be tarnished by this incident.  These men - conspiring with Kennedy - work overtime to suppress the flow of information to the press and police and manipulate local news media and pressure other local authorities to cover up the more guilt-ridden details of the night in question.  Throughout it all, Kennedy himself is perhaps his own worst enemy, especially for how he fakes a concussion and publicly admits to taking meds for it that are never used to treat the head trauma and later wears a neck brace to Kopechne's funeral, but angers attendees with his remarkable ability to turn his head despite such injuries. 

Eventually, Kennedy was somewhat saved by the much larger news headlines of NASA landing the first men on the moon, which rather conveniently took the media spotlight away from him.  That, and he gave a very famous speech on network television where he relayed his side of what transpired to millions of those watching (following his appearance, Kennedy's supporters steadfastly seemed to support him and were in favor of him remaining in office).  When the dust finally settled, Kennedy remained in office, would later run unsuccessfully for President in 1980, and would remain a senator for 40 years until his passing (granted, the Chappaquiddick Incident derailed his willingness to run for President throughout the 1970s).  The darker thematic underbelly of CHAPPAQUIDDICK is the notion that voters will, for some unexplainably reason, still unwaveringly stand by certain political figures in power regardless of transgression as well as showing how men like Kennedy - with vast money, an iconic name, and a massive safety net of friends and colleagues - escape accountability.  If Kennedy were any other type of regular citizen he most certainly would have done serious time for his mistakes that cost the life of young woman with her whole life ahead of her. 

Kennedy is not presented as a one note villain here, though, nor is he shown as a pathetic victim of bad decision making and circumstance.  He's much more fascinatingly layered and complex, being portrayed as a man that feels shock and remorse for what has happened, but who later shows little regard for Kopechne's death as he engages in bouts of woeful self-pity about his own dicey predicament.  You gain a sense that Kennedy legitimately feels heartbroken about the incident, but he's also quick to emotionally rebound and do whatever it takes to (a) save his own ass and (b) maintain the legendary stature of his family's name and reputation.  This is also a man that's not afraid to concoct lies to save face, making him a manipulative con man, but when we see other scenes of him being psychologically and physically manhandled by his pitilessly bullying father, Kennedy seems like a man-child in desperate need of saving.  CHAPPAQUIDDICK deserves points for not being too sentimental or sensationalistic in its approach to Kennedy and avoids tabloid level sleaziness throughout. 

The Australian born Jason Clarke - one of our most effectively understated and underrated of actors - may not seem like a plausible fit for Kennedy (he looks really nothing the thirtysomething politician), but much like, say, Anthony Hopkins in NIXON his performance is less about outright mimicry and more about authentically inhabiting his role to the point where it feels dramatically honest.  Clarke's performance occupies a tricky balance between showing Kennedy as an irredeemable and over-privileged yuppie and a poor soul that got in way, way over his head and knew deep down that he would always be the black sheep of the Kennedy family.  Considering the fact that he outlived all of his brothers who died far too young (John and Robert via an assassin's bullet and Joe Jr. dying in WWII), the scope of his irresponsible actions must have weighed heavily on Teddy, which Clarke's deceptively empowered performance evokes.  There are moments in CHAPPAQUIDDICK that will inspire viewers to hate this man and feel pity for him all in the same.  

CHAPPAQUIDDICK could have achieved greatness if it were paced better, especially during the opening stages of the narrative.  That, and Curron's overall directorial approach, as mentioned, lacks flair and feels too clinically detached at times.  I also would have appreciated more time devoted to Kopechne as a character, the real victim in this sordid mess that's given an egregious lack of screen time and development here.  Yet, as a historical drama that dives headfirst into a controversial past tragedy, CHAPPAQUIDDICK is a thoroughly enthralling and satisfying watch.  And considering how the current American President was miraculously elected into office and remains there despite a laundry list of misdemeanors, Ted Kennedy's ethically thorny legacy as an affluent politician that had enough money and power to get himself out of the worst of jams only reiterates how those in power seem immune from justice.   

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