In an era where politics and celebrity are intertwined, it’s still interesting to be reminded how fascinated America was with the Kennedys. Maybe it was the magnetic personalities of John and Bobby that made them seem more like everyday people than elected officials, or the wholesome united front that their wives and fathers and children gave off to the American people. It’s like all those ads from the 1950s of the cartoon families sitting together at the dinner table eating cherry pie actually came to life to run the country. Then again, it could’ve been the secrets and rumors passed around about drinks being downed and the dames being danced with that kept people’s eyes fixated. But what about the Kennedys themselves? How much effort was put into presenting themselves to the American people, and what were they willing to sacrifice to keep the sheen of the Kennedy name as glistening as the shallow waters of Poucha Pond?
Said pond, found on Chappaquiddick island in Martha’s Vineyard, is where Ted Kennedy drove drunk off of a bridge and left a former secretary to brother Bobby, Mary Jo Kopechne, trapped in the car to drown on July 18, 1969. This would be a shocking scandal on its own but again, this is still the Kennedys we’re talking about. The former First Family of the United States, who buried one son barely a year before this and another son nearly six years prior. This is the family that’s been leaning on the U.S. as a shoulder to cry on after inspiring such hope to its people. So with all the sympathy in the nation on their side, did that hold up enough in place of moral righteousness?
Ted was re-elected to the Senate, so it must’ve worked. But how did it work on the Lion of the Senate? Chappaquiddick attempts to tell the story through the youngest Kennedy’s eyes. A year removed from brother Bobby’s assassination and on the eve of achieving brother John’s dream of walking on the moon, Ted (Jason Clarke) is visiting Martha’s Vineyard for some sun, sailing and reflection. He meets up with old friends and formers staffers on Bobby’s campaign team known as “the boiler room girls.” One of them is Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), who Ted is quietly envious of for leaving politics entirely after Bobby was killed. Ted, a Massachusetts state senator being groomed to run for president in 1972, doesn’t get that luxury and is unsure of what to do in the future. But that one night in July, he decided to drink. Then he decided to drive with Mary Jo as his passenger. Then he takes a wrong right turn and his life (quite literally) turns upside down and sinks. His friends, attorneys Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), beg Ted to report the incident to limit the fallout. But his father, Joe Sr. (Bruce Dern), very old but still very much in control of the Kennedy image, hires a crack team of scandal silencers to bring together an alibi for the accident. Despite Ted wanting to prove himself capable of handling this situation, he’s unsure if he’d rather sacrifice his soul or his family’s legacy.
Despite its title, Chappaquiddick is most definitely about Ted Kennedy. He was a beloved figure in Massachusetts, a man under America’s microscope and just an all-around good chap who patted you on the shoulder just for saying hello. He was a Kennedy, a man who knows how to be around people. He wants to make his fellow citizens proud, but not before they leave him the hell alone first. For the first half of the movie, Ted seems to be waiting for some kind of sign telling him what he has to do with his life and to prove his purpose. Of course when he gets that moment (for better or worse), it’s clear that he’s not even close to capable to handling himself.
Chappaquiddick pulls no punches: the death of Mary Jo was very much Ted’s fault. There are moments where the movie shows Ted torn over what to do, clearly riddled with guilt over Mary Jo’s death and trying really hard to admit wrongdoing and cleanse his soul. But it’s when his Kennedy-ness kicks in, either to spite his father or prove his worth his constituents, that he morphs into the political punchline he’d become until his death 40 years later. Even in the brief moments where he questions his motives, it all snaps back into proving he’s his own man and protecting his family. Chappaquiddick also shows the spell the Kennedys had over people, especially locals. When Ted asks the Edgartown Police Chief to use discretion in revealing information to the press, he seals it with a reassuring pat on the shoulder and telling him he’s doing a “bang-up job” handling everything, making it all the more easier for the chief to basically be an accomplice in what would become a shocking cover-up. You can see the horror on Markham’s face, both as he watches Ted rationalize his actions and the chief actually believe it.
It’s clear what Chappaquiddick wants to do and it does a lot to achieve its goal. But Chappaquiddick is a very limited film due to its budget. Chappaquiddick looks like a very cheap movie, something very made-for-TV with its flat shooting style, dry cinematography and repetitive score. It feels like director John Curran (The Painted Veil) was in some kind of a rush to get the movie on film and not try anything interesting with the filmmaking. A few reshoots might’ve helped too, as some scenes feel unnecessarily comical that make the movie unfocused (like when Ted first tries on his infamous neck brace and gets laughed out the room). A bigger budget might’ve paid for a touch-up on the script, as first-time writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan don’t leave any room to dig deeper into the relationship between Ted and Joe Sr., along with one extra scene that shows Ted seemingly making the decision to become a liar for the rest of his days. While it does make the 101-minute runtime fly by, there’s the sense that something is missing to make this movie seem legitimate instead of a juiced-up PBS documentary.
That’s not dogging on the performers here either. Clarke is incredibly compelling as Ted Kennedy, with an ace Massachusetts-accent and the composure of a stout political figure. Clarke sees Kennedy as a lost soul with a hint of being a petulant child, stomping his feet in place trying to be seen by his father and his handlers. What Clarke does to sell his version of Kennedy is give him unabashed obliviousness to the moral horror of what he’s done. Even in the face of skirting off the death of a woman, he has no problem putting on that confident Kennedy stare. Dern, though wheelchair bound and playing Joe Sr. as his crippled aged self, remains a strong presence in his brief scenes as the lingering shadow over the Kennedy name. Helms and especially Gaffigan make good cases for continuing their dramatic acting careers as they serve as Ted’s failed conscious trying to wrap their heads around the absurdity of the situation.
There’s a great mythos surrounding Chappaquiddick. When I was a young lad, my dad actually took me to the bridge that Ted Kennedy drove off of and described it to me like it was some kind of national monument, like the World War II memorial. Something to marvel at and yet a grim reminder of a truly shocking moment in history. Chappaquiddick the movie seems to be a clarification on that point, more on the “grim” subject than the one of “marvel.” While it doesn’t get the grandest of treatment and can’t seem to dig deeper than the obvious, Chappaquiddick does serve as a cautionary tale of what Americans have let slide in favor of celebrity and status. Who knows if this will come around on our current Leader of the Free World but as this movie shows, it didn’t seem to work the first time.