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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.