Directed by: John Curran
Written by: Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan
Cast: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern
Swift shot: It has often been said that The Kennedys are American royalty. With all the immediate images that conjures up in your head, they are replete with scandals: suicides; rapes; murders; cover-ups; and even assassinations that haven’t completely been solved. But a more obscure story about the last true patriarch of the Kennedy crime family is Ted Kennedy’s midnight ride in Chappaquiddick that ended with the mysterious death of his brother’s former aide, Mary Jo Kopechne. And this new film by Director John Curran finally dives into the murky waters and exposes at least one possible hypothesis for how those events unfolded. Is it completely historically accurate? Only two people really know for sure, and they are both dead.
Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr. built his empire by bootlegging, so that makes him a criminal kingpin. And while he appears to have avoided prosecution, mostly unscathed, his sons (and daughters) have paid for his many sins. His oldest son, Joe Jr. died on an incredibly daring top secret mission during World War II. Operation Aphrodite: that’s a movie that I would love to see someday. Then his second oldest, John Fitzgerald was assassinated by either a lone gun man or theories that range from Cuba to China. Not five years later, his third son, Robert was gunned down by a Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan assuring Robert would never see the throne, err, I mean presidency. In the wake of all this tragedy, that would leave youngest son Ted to ascend to the Oval Office.
When Chappaquiddick begins, Ted (Clarke) is trying to recruit Robert’s former top aide Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara) to lead his presidential campaign team. He’s gathered a bunch of his fiery, feisty so-called “boiler room girls” at his family’s Chappaquiddick Island retreat. He’s there to race in an annual sailing regatta, helming the “Victura.” Where he winds up in that race actually foreshadows his life as a Kennedy. To put it simply, he is not victorious, but he doesn’t come in last.
As Ted licks his wounds from his resounding whomping on the water, he is already a man lost. He isn’t sure who he is now that all his brothers are gone. And he isn’t sure if he even wants to be president. Still, he knows what his father wants, for him to rule the land and keep the Kennedy name a contender, a true American legacy. He knows that without Mary Jo at his side, he will probably fail.
And on one fateful July night in 1969, Ted’s actions will forever haunt him and his family.
Following a night of heavy drinking and partying, which is pretty standard for the Kennedys, Ted decides to drive Mary Jo out to the middle of nowhere to have a private conversation. His wife, Joanie (Andria Blackman) is at home sick under “doctor’s orders” allegedly.
We’ll never really know what was discussed in all these conversations, or what really happened on that drive. All we know is how it ended, with Mary Jo Kopechne dead. After the crash, Ted walks to a home nearby and gets someone to drive him back to the party where he tells his cousin Joe Gargan (Helms) and his friend, the US Attorney of Massachusetts, Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) about the accident. As you might expect, they tell him to report it immediately. He has other ideas.
This is a difficult film to watch, as you constantly wonder how someone could just walk away from such a horrific tragedy and spend hours walking, driving, rowing, bathing, eating, and then still not calling the authorities! As things play out, it becomes clear that Ted would have been better off just calling the police immediately, but see, he is a Kennedy. That isn’t how they think. Their first instinct is always “protect the family” even when it doesn’t really need protecting.
As a wise patriarch of my past once said, “They lie when the truth sounds better.” Not very bright. The one voice of reason is Joe Gargan, who ironically enough was usually called on to fix problems for Ted.
Director Curran and the writing team lay out the events in a way that really captures the stranglehold that Joe Sr. (Dern) has on the major New England players. There is no way for the actual message to ever be known about what happened that night, and Joe calls on his own smoky room boys to spin the tragedy to protect the Kennedy name. With Clancy Brown (incidentally one of my favorite actors who seems to be popping up everywhere now) as Robert McNamara leading the strategy. Clancy arguably has the funniest line in the film equating the Chappaquiddick incident to the disastrous Bay of Pigs CIA invasion of Cuba.
With the moon landing taking up most of the media’s attention, Ted is seemingly saved by one small step for man, as all the questions go unanswered for decades. I was hoping Chappaquiddick would provide some answers to this horrific night where a beautiful young woman was lost to the Kennedy curse (of being reckless and brash) but I didn’t really find any closure.
Historically speaking, Curran and his crew did a fantastic job of establishing the 1969 setting, and I really found myself disgusted with Ted Kennedy, not with Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy. Again, Clarke impresses me with his ability to so easily become his characters. And Dern as Joe Sr. is subtle and strong with a powerful presence from an enfeebled body.
Chappaquiddick is a film for history buffs and Kennedy researchers, but it also serves as a stark reminder that often doing the right thing is not the easy thing, and sometimes the cover-up causes more problems than just admitting to your mistakes.