John Curran’s Chappaquiddick tells the true story of the accident that claimed the life of Mary Jo Kopechne, an innocent and idealistic campaign staffer for Senator Ted Kennedy in 1969. After a party, Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and Mary Jo (Kate Mara) go for a drive and talk about Ted’s future. There is a hint of attraction from Mary Jo towards Ted, who was married at the time of the accident to Joan. Their marriage was in serious trouble due to Ted’s constant infidelity. I don’t know if there was any actual infidelity between Kennedy and Mary Jo on this fateful evening and I would not speculate it so. There is enough horrendous behavior from Ted Kennedy on his handling of this horrific accident to go around without piling on but he is not the only one. The whole ordeal was a travesty and devastating to the Kopechne family and the real victim, Mary Jo.
The accident deals with Ted driving his car off of a bridge. The car flips over and is submerged almost entirely in about ten feet of water. Ted is able to get out of the car but Mar Jo is trapped. He stated that he “tried” to get her out but it was dark and he couldn’t even see where she was and gave a myriad of excuses of why he wasn’t able to free her from the car. He walked all the way back to the party and rounded up two of his closest advisers, Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan). All three returned to the bridge and Gargan and Markham tried to get Mary Jo out of the car, to no avail. They both encourage Ted to call the police immediately but Ted seems to be more worried about the damage to his political aspirations and his name than anything. Inexplicably, he doesn’t call the police about the accident for almost ten hours. What follows is the cover-up and spin that was only built to protect Ted, his family and the Kennedy name.
Everyone is called in to manufacture the spin and how to paint Ted as the victim. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. Everyone who worked for Ted’s brothers John and Bobby Kennedy most notably Bob McNamara (Clancy Brown) former Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) former speechwriter, attorney and lead counsel to John F. Kennedy. Ted seems to think he doesn’t need any help with his story but blunder after blunder reveals he is not smart enough nor crafty enough to pull this off. Ted’s father, Joseph (Bruce Dern) who is in his last years of life, confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak full sentences and can barely, physically even write whispers one word on the phone to Ted when first hearing of the accident, “ALIBI”. That should give you a better idea of just how loathsome most of these people are.
All civility and common decency are pitched out of the window in order to cover for Ted. Even one of Mary Jo’s “friends”, Rachel (Olivia Thirlby) upon first hearing of Mary Jo’s death says, “What can we do to help you, Senator?” Not one of her “friends” seems to question how or why she died. In fact, there is not one decent person to emerge from this tragedy with the exception of one person; Joseph Gargan. Ed Helms gives the best performance of his career playing Joseph, a serious and good man who, pretty much from the start is mortified that Ted seems more concerned about his chances of weathering this storm to still become President than Mary Jo’s life. “Ole Joe” as he was called, seems to be the only one with a soul who, even though he is Ted’s cousin, has enough and walks out. Only when he is duped by Ted to come back does he show any signs of understanding but is ultimately lied to by Ted and walks away for good. He would always be estranged from the rest of the Kennedy family.
The cast is excellent starting with Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy. He plays Ted with a level of sleaziness that will make you squirm with anger. Clarke is a terrific actor and really delivers, here. Kate Mara is not in the film much but what screen time she has she is sweet, innocent, believes in Ted but sympathizes that he would always stand in the shadows of John and Bobby. Bruce Dern has even less screen time than Ms. Mara, but he shows the patriarchal domination that Joseph had over the Kennedy family. He was a cruel and hateful man, in my opinion, even going so far as to tell Ted at one point, “You will never be a great man!” He was right, but no son wants to hear that from his father. Dern does a great job in such a limited role. Garth Stevenson’s score is simply beautiful and tragic and punctuates the story of Chappaquiddick, perfectly. He is a composer to watch for.
First feature film scriptwriters Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen have written an intelligent and timely story that beautifully encapsulates the time period and the hysterical love and admiration that Massachusetts had for the Kennedys, inexplicable as it was then and still is. It also has some clever lines suggesting that Ted would have fared better as a substitute host of the Tonight’s Show than his ability to navigate through this scandal and come out as “sympathetic”. John Curran’s direction is excellent as he walks a very fine line between the idolizing of the Kennedys but never loses the fact that the real victims in all of this were the Kopechne’s and Mary Jo, first and foremost. There are revelations throughout the film that show her death was unnecessary and could have been prevented had people simply done the right thing. It will simply infuriate you that she could have been saved and in fact, did not drown as it was thought, originally. She died alone, gasping for air, praying for help that would never come.
Chappaquiddick ended Ted’s hopes for being President even though he did make a run against Ronald Reagan in his second term which ended in disaster for Ted. Ted would never run again for President but did manage to get re-elected to the Senate time and time again. He was the fourth longest serving Senator until his death in 2009 from brain cancer. What struck me about Chappaquiddick was how seemingly normal and good people would forget any decency and rally around a man who was a coward; a selfish, self absorbed, narcissistic, egomaniac who did not care about anyone but himself and his future. Chappaquiddick is an excellent film; truthful and brutally honest about a tragedy that could have been avoided had people done the right thing.
Chappaquiddick – ****1/2 out of 5
Chappaquiddick – Rated PG13 for language, brief violence, adult situations
Chappaquiddick – Run time is 106 minutes
Chappaquiddick is now available on DVD, On Demand and pay subscription services.