In a film about the Chappaquiddick incident – in which a car driven by Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) went off a bridge with him and Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) inside, only for the drunk Kennedy to let her die in the car while he walked home and did not report the accident until the cops were already at the scene the next morning – director John Curran opts to open in a rather precise way. Between an interview with Ted Kennedy about his brother John’s legacy and the overlaying of a broadcast about the moon landing, Curran brings to life the words that Ted speaks when he says that his brother cast a long shadow, one that he will forever exist within. In a film that is, ostensibly, about the incident and how he handled the situation afterwards, Curran still opens the film discussing the moon landing and reminiscing about John F. Kennedy. Later, the film even openly comments about how the moon landing seemed to be timed to perfectly coincide with the Chappaquiddick incident as a way to keep the story off the front page. This is an incident that has nothing to do with John and yet Ted still cannot find a way to get out of his shadow. For Ted, he sees the long shadows cast by his three deceased brothers and openly recognizes his shortcomings, admitting to his father Joe Sr. (Bruce Dern) that he does not want to be known as the “dumb one” and lamenting the lack of control he will have over his legacy following the Chappaquiddick incident. Now, he is not just the “dumb one”. Instead, he is the self-centered murderer of the family. Though a mixed bag of a film, Chappaquiddick is an often strong and moving film that is partially undone by some awkward attempts to evoke empathy for Ted and how it seemingly skirts over some of the more unsavory parts of the story.
Perhaps one of the more interesting elements of Chappaquiddick is how it works as a companion piece to the recent film Jackie, directed by Pablo Larraín. In that film, the pain and grief of Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of John’s assassination is examined in a way that reframed her and the issue. Jackie is able to tear down the walls around the former First Lady and show her for what she was: a woman who was greatly distraught with pain that lingered well beyond the immediate aftermath of the assassination. It is a beautiful film that explores this grief, but also touches on the mysticism of Camelot. It is a film that, to some degree, certainly buys into the aura surrounding the borderline mythological Kennedy family. Chappaquiddick, however, does not. Director John Curran not only openly criticizes Ted Kennedy, showing him to be an immoral man who lied to the public and killed a woman through his own negligence and ambition, but he also criticizes the Kennedy family. He does not disturb the legacies of the brothers, but he shows the way in which Joe Sr. controls the family. As Ted tells him what happened, the wheelchair-ridden Joe says just one word, “Alibi”. Throughout the film, Ted consistently seeks to garner sympathy from the public, whether it is via a neck brace or mentioning the “Kennedy curse”.
While Ted is, of course, the focus of this criticism with Curran taking every opportunity to demonstrate just how far Ted and his team of lawyers will go in order to somehow make this woman’s death about him and to ensure he can still become President when this is all over, Curran truly does criticize the entire Kennedy family and Camelot. He pulls back this facade, demonstrating the public manipulation, bought and paid for public influencers (cops, lawyers, prosecutors, judges) who ensure the family avoids punishment, and the truly sick greed and power hungry behavior demonstrated by the family members. The only one immune to this is Ted’s cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) who is practically saintly in comparison, always focused on trying to rescue Mary Jo from the second he learns about the accident and actively convincing Ted to resign from the Senate. Yet, this voice of morality is consistently put away and ignored, all in favor of sustaining the aura of Camelot and the seemingly insatiable desire of the Kennedy’s to possess more and more power, no matter who is hurt in the process. In Curran’s view, it is clear that the Chappaquiddick incident is not unfortunate to the Kennedy’s because a woman died: it is unfortunate because it meant Ted was unable to become President.
It is for this self-centered nature of the character – one that the film shows willingly and condemns – that Chappaquiddick’s treatment of Ted’s relationship with his father is so flawed. The scenes are masterfully acted by Jason Clarke and Bruce Dern, while the writing is similarly emotional and honest. In a different film, the scenes would strike an emotional chord about the plight of being the youngest child in a family of high expectations with a father who never approves and a son who just want to make his dad proud. Unfortunately, these scenes are in a film about how Ted Kennedy killed a woman who worked on Robert’s campaign for no apparent reason other than his own pride and fear. Before the murder, he laments to Mary Jo about how he was never able to find what he wanted to do because his dad forced him into politics. By the time he confronts his dad, it is no surprise the scenes are emotional. Yet, the film comes dangerously close to going beyond sympathy for why Ted is the way he is and goes more towards rationalization.
The film, naturally, can humanize Ted as a flawed individual. It is unafraid to criticize him and these flaws, but where the film errs is in how it seems to say, “Yes, what Ted did was bad, but it was only because he felt that his dad did not love him and he did not want to disappoint him by ruining his shot at the presidency. He is actually a sympathetic figure, undone by the legacy of those before him.” While, personally, it does not appear as though Curran believes this to be the case or even an acceptable explanation, the film never clearly draws this line in the sand. Instead, it flips between scenes of his lawyers trying to get him off the hook, people reveling in John’s accomplishments, and Ted pleading with his dad for some compassion. This series of events and structure leads to these uncomfortable implications about how, even if not justified, Ted’s actions were understandable. Joe Gargan is certainly there to underscore just how far from acceptable the actions are, but the film’s lack of decisiveness on outright damning Ted leaves open this unfortunate door. For a film that has a line joking that it would be easier to have Ted fill in for Johnny Carson than to make him sympathetic, it sure does spend a lot of time trying to make him sympathetic.
Chappaquiddick, though often unafraid to show the dirty details of the politicking, seems also far too afraid of outright calling Ted a liar on certain elements. It shows the absurdity of his explanation that he swam instead of taking the ferry, especially as the film showed him steal a boat earlier on. It shows him lie about seeing the cop before the crash. It shows him lie about trying to save Mary Jo. It shows him lie about why he did not report the crash earlier. It shows him lie about why he was even in Chappaquiddick and about his wife’s health. It shows him lie about being injured to great comedic effect with his people, under his directive, informing the press that he is on sedatives due to a concussion he sustained. The film is all about his lies and attempts to somehow control the narrative to benefit him, while obscuring the fact a woman died due to his drunkenness, selfishness, and negligence. If all of this is true, then why does the film skirt around why Ted had Mary Jo and the other “Boiler Room girls” visit him and his buddies at Chappaquiddick? Why does the film not raise issue with him instructing his cousin Joe to ensure the girls get a hotel room because, “Without the girls, there is no party”? Instead, it positions it as all quite kosher. Ted toasts the girls, celebrating their acceptance into the Kennedy family due to their selfless work on Robert’s campaign. Ted innocently speaks with Mary Jo, asking her to join his campaign and help him become president in 1972. Before the accident, the pair sit on the hood of his car speaking about Ted’s issues with his dad. Does the film really want the audience to believe that a group of married men – all conveniently without their “sick” wives for the weekend – travel out of town to meet up with 20-something single women to just drink a few beers and talk about professional plans? There are moments where, off-screen, it is mentioned that there are rumors of an affair, but with the film never actually showing anything salacious, it winds up unintentionally downplaying these suggestions as media concoctions. In doing so, it is an incredibly odd omission for a film seemingly unafraid of expressing the truth.
One of the more effective scenes in Chappaquiddick comes as Curran cuts to Mary Jo. As she is submerged in the car and finds an air pocket, she continuously tries to lift herself up. Using a tight camera shot on her face, Kate Mara nails the role as she is panicked, frightened, and absolutely desperate to save herself. It is a harrowing sequence, one made all the more impactful by the film’s moving score and the shot of Mary Jo’s lifeless body being lifted out of the car. Phone calls to her parents that are marked by silence on the other line after hearing their daughter has died further focus the film on the key fact: a woman died. It is these moments that allow Ted’s behavior to become all the more sinister and impactful. As he professes to have a moral compass and be guided by something out of his control that ensures he does what is right, it plays almost like a comedic line. As he tries to manipulate the public into voting for him again by garnering sympathy, it is so out-of-touch the audience can barely help but laugh. As the film progresses, for all of its flaws, it never forgets that Ted killed a woman and this is how he responded to the event. Of all of its critical elements, this is perhaps the most damning.
As with many modern political films, Chappaquiddick never misses a chance to create parallels to the modern day. As Ted Kennedy wraps up the film with a speech on the national television networks in which he denies all accusations against him, admits that he made a major mistake, expresses his condolences, asks for prayers for himself, and makes an overture to get the voters back on his side, Curran never hides the fact he is trying to be manipulative and to lie openly to the public. As Joe tries to get him to resign from his post, Ted does nothing but dig his heels in further and practically announce his future Presidential candidacy. Curran then, smartly, cuts to interviews with the public. As reporters ask them what they thought about his statements and if they would vote for him, practically everybody responds positively. Not only did they all like his statement and find him to be an honest man who had something terrible happen to him (forget what happened to Mary Jo), but they would absolutely vote for him if given the chance. It is a chilling moment and one that shows how little has changed in America. Politicians will always deceive the public and the public will always buy in without questioning the information spoon-fed to them. It is a tragic finale, one that gives credence to the Winston Churchill quote, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
One of the film’s greatest flaws, beyond what it includes and what it does not, is that it is never as gripping as it could have been. Aside from the incident itself and the sequence of Mary Jo drowning, Chappaquiddick never rises above feeling as though it is a film one rents to watch with their parents when they come home for a visit. You just know they are going to love it as a piece of history, while the film itself is rather stodgily paced and generally unchallenging. Though Jason Clarke is great in the role of Ted Kennedy and cinematographer Maryse Alberti brings skill in lighting and some great camera work – especially a tracking shot outside the Chappaquiddick home of the Kennedy’s or the claustrophobic drowning scene – to the table, Chappaquiddick is just never more than a middle-of-the-road true story. Though far from boring, it is one of those films that the viewer is always, subconsciously, waiting for it to get started only for the end credits to pop up. It is engaging, it is often thrilling, and it is a well put together work by a strong director in Curran, but it just never rises above being an incredibly safe, inoffensive telling of a true story.
An incredibly timely and relevant examination of the events surrounding one of the more controversial and tragic incidents involving a politician in the 20th century, Chappaquiddick comes at a time where much of the public is once again being deceived by the public relations arm of a powerful family. Curran uses the events in the Chappaquiddick incident as a way to demystify the Kennedy family and bring the incident back into the public consciousness, especially for younger generations. While perhaps not the best work from John Curran – that title still belongs to The Painted Veil – Chappaquiddick is a solid true story as a character study of a man who was too absorbed in his own pursuits to save a suffocating woman.