Dir: John Curran
Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, etc.
Runtime: 1hr 41min
Spoiler level: Light
Chappaquiddick is based on the true story of the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, in which a car accident involving senator Ted Kennedy (Clark) resulted in the death of political campaign secretary Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara). As controversy erupts regarding his level of involvement in Kopechne’s death, the senator must decide which is more important – the legacy and reputation of his family, or the truth.
Chappaquiddick presents a compelling and relevant commentary on the perceived moral infallibility of politicians and public figures versus the truth of their glaring flaws and inherent humanity. The film lingers on the word “integrity” more than once, and it seems that is the idea that haunts Kennedy as the events of that night on Chappaquiddick consume his life and threaten his career. As the senator smooths his hair and adjusts his appearance in mirrors and ensures that he looks good for the cameras, he is the picture of integrity, the image of an upstanding man of high moral character – and yet, so often, his words and actions behind closed doors contradict that. The outside fails to reflect the inside, though the outside is all that the public sees.
Clarke’s portrayal is gripping and nuanced as the last Kennedy son, living in the engulfing shadow of Robert and Jack, a man slowly breaking beneath the burdensome reputation of his celebrated family, struggling to appease the rigid demands of his wheelchair-bound, yet intimidating father (Dern), and the truth surrounding a young woman who met her death, cold and alone, in the depths of a lake. Early in the film, a wet, defeated Ted Kennedy tells his cousin Joe Gargan (Helms) “I’m not going to be president,” and that statement encompasses the truth of who Kennedy is, in this film. A man who will never escape the shadows that eclipse him.
Though Clarke’s performance easily dominates the screen, the supporting roles in this film are superb, especially Mara as Mary Jo, as she is, essentially, the ghost that trails Kennedy throughout this film, resonating long after that car plummets into the water, a presence that cannot merely be relegated to a footnote in someone else’s history. Helms also delivers a solid performance as Gargan, torn between his loyalty and familial ties to the Kennedy family, and the struggle to do what is right. Andria Blackman as Ted’s wife Joan Kennedy gets the film’s lone F-bomb, and it’s my personal favorite line in the entire film. Dern is powerful as Kennedy family patriarch, and, though the senior Kennedy was confined to a wheelchair and suffering from the effects of a stroke that left his movement and speech impaired, Dern’s portrayal makes him a dominant force to be reckoned with, with a glare that could freeze anyone in place.
One major strength of the film is how it subtly presents different “sides,” or compares viewpoints and situations. In the film, the problems swarming Kennedy are juxtaposed against the efforts of the Space Race – a fitting contrast, as Ted Kennedy’s political career and social life plunge into purgatory while Neil Armstrong takes his first victorious steps on the surface of the moon. One giant leap for mankind, and one massive misstep for Ted Kennedy. It’s a nice touch, aiding the tone of the film, and makes Ted’s mistakes all the more apparent. Another contrast is the way Mary Jo is treated, often referred to as “the girl,” by the Kennedy’s collection of black suits, but referred to by name by Gargan and those close to her, even by Kennedy himself. The core of this film is the way it shows ideas butting heads with each other – most prominently, the weight of a family’s reputation against the importance of truth and honesty, and politics versus morality and how they often fail to intersect.
What truly happened on the night of July 18th, 1969 at a bridge on Chappaquiddick island, might never be fully explained or revealed, and many of the details have remained unclear. The film does a fair job of keeping this relatively ambiguous tone, as the true nature of the relationship between Ted and Mary Jo is left to interpretation, and Ted appears conflicted enough about his choices that the film avoids entering character assassination territory. Viewers can form their own opinion of him – I’ve never held the Kennedy family on a golden, untouchable pedestal, so I found the portrayal to be well-balanced. Sharp editing and writing assist in making Chappaquiddick a partially completed puzzle that offers enough of a clear picture to satisfy audiences and answer pesky questions, while leaving enough blurred ideas and “what ifs?” and “might haves” to avoid straying too far into slanderous artistic liberty pitfalls that plague so many films based on “true” events. However, those with a rosy perception of the Kennedy dynasty might think otherwise.
Overall rating: 8/10