Hot Take: I want to respect this movie for it’s refusal to sensationalize the subject matter. However, the straightforward flick felt less like a feature film and more like a history lesson.
Hollywood has devoted a lot of resources to making feature films and television shows about the Kennedys. Ted Kennedy hasn’t really been more than a side note in these films and shows until Chappaquiddick which re-lives the personally darkest point of Ted’s life. It’s re-creation of the events surrounding the car accident at Chappaquiddick Island which involved Ted and one of the women who worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign, Mary Jo Kopechne. The accident involved Ted’s car careening off a small bridge and into a pond. Kennedy escaped but Kopechne was unable to get out of the car and drowned. Straightforward and documentary-like, Chappaquiddick follows the story from the accident to the aftermath and how Ted initially planned to not reveal he was in the car and waited nearly half a day to turn himself into the authorities. It also reveals how this scandal was handled politically by Kennedy’s team of advisors and family.
Featuring a talented cast with a few curveballs in casting, Jason Clarke plays Ted Kennedy and does a serviceable job as the youngest of the nine Kennedy children and senator of Massachusetts. Mary Jo Kopechne portrays Kate Mara and outside of a rather morose scene depicting the recovered body of Kopechne, Mara’s part is as expected as there isn’t much revealed of her relationship with Ted outside of their connection through Robert and her desire to stay out of politics after his assassination. The rest of the cast is where there are a few curveballs thrown. Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan portray Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, Kennedy’s cousin and the former attorney of Massachussetts, respectively. The pair were close confidants of Kennedy and were at the party which Ted and Mary Jo left on the night of the incident. It’s a strange casting because Helms and Gaffigan are known for their comedic roles and, in this case, aren’t here to provide comic relief. What it does though is give a sort of buffoonish glint to Gargan and Markham but it’s hard to tell if that’s intentional. Bruce Dern plays Joe Kennedy Sr. and delivers the most interesting performance of the film. As the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Dern portrays him as a rather vile, politically driven man who despite the effects of a debilitating stroke, urges Ted to come up with an alibi and does everything he can to help devise a strategy to keep Ted in office and out of jail following the incident.
That last sentence makes the film sound more salacious than it is. It’s more straightforward than that and doesn’t even touch any of the more incendiary theories surrounding the accident and the death of Kopechne. Kopechne, the real victim of the Chappaquiddick incident, feels like a footnote as the film instead does its best to focus on Ted and his simultaneous culprit/victim role in the incident. The film hits a number of sympathetic notes, especially when Ted is dealing with his father’s influence. Chappaquiddick writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan and director John Curran are at least empathetic to what Ted is going through as his political career hangs in the balance of the events unfolding. It’s a rather uninteresting and cold approach to an incident that involves the death of a young woman but throws her aside as you would a blanket on a warm summer night.
From a narrative perspective, Chappaquiddick does it’s job in re-telling the story of Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident. It sheds almost no light on Kopechne as more than the woman that was in the car Ted drove off the bridge. There are inferences made but they are never spelled out and as the story progresses, it feels more like an effort to shield Kennedy from any further negativity. It’s not revisionist history but there are definitely punches pulled in this documentary-like feature. Without a doubt, there’s some reverence here for Ted and his political plight. Obviously, it’s easy to have such a reverence considering Ted’s post-Chappaquiddick political career and the efforts he made toward American progressivism as his career progressed. It’s odd to watch a film that so easily walks by Kopechne’s life as Ted did in his efforts to stay in office following the incident. Don’t get me wrong here, there’s plenty of scorn toward Kennedy from some of the peripheral characters and Clarke’s portrayal at times looks conniving and calculated but more often, looks desperate to please those around him.
In the end, Chappaquiddick feels less like a feature film and more like a side note to a late spring high school history class. It’s interesting enough to carry the 101 minute run time and if you aren’t familiar with the tale, this will bring you up to speed rather quickly. However, considering the film is called Chappaquiddick and not Ted (which would have been confusing for whole other reasons), you’d think we’d get more about Kopechne, the real victim here. However, she continues to just be the woman who happened to be in the car with Ted the night he drove it off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island.
You’re a historian and dig stories about the Kennedy clan.
At this point, this story is water under the bridge.