FILM REVIEW – CHAPPAQUIDDICK. With Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Clancy Brown, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern. Written by Taylor Allen & Andrew Logan. Directed by John Curran. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking. 101 minutes.
If Shakespeare had written CHAPPAQUIDDICK, it would have been called “The Tragedy of Edward Kennedy.” In telling the story of the fateful incident that took the life of a young woman and forever stained his reputation, it presents not an exposé but an examination of his character flaws as well as the enablers – and the public mood of the era – that granted Kennedy a second act, if not the Presidency.
In July 1969, the weekend when Neil Armstrong would be the first man to walk on the moon, Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke), and some colleagues including cousin and trusted aide Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), have invited a group of young women who had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign – cut short by his assassination in June 1968 – to join them for a “reunion” just off Martha’s Vineyard.
The film tells the story in a straightforward manner. Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), identified as a “secretary” by Kennedy but actually an experienced political operative, is weighing whether she would want to work on a new Kennedy campaign. In the course of a long evening of drinking and partying, Kennedy and Kopechne go off together, although there is no hint of anything but a professional relationship between them. Kennedy is weighed down by the deaths of his brothers, and the pressure on him to pick up the mantle and run for President himself. Even his father Joseph (Bruce Dern), debilitated by a stroke, is on his back.
Heading back, Kennedy drove their car off an old bridge and it ended up submerged in a pond. Kennedy escaped, while Kopechne either drowned or was asphyxiated. What happened next is why Kennedy – who would later be revered as the “Lion of the Senate” who was able to work with Democrats and Republicans in forging legislation – was never entirely free of the stain of that night. He told conflicting stories as to what happened, didn’t report it to the authorities until the following morning, and then cooperated with a cover-up. With the help of heavy hitters like former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), both the legal authorities and the media were massaged and manipulated. The end result was that the story became that of his own redemption from his inexplicable and inexcusable behavior.
Could this happen today? Not the way it’s depicted here. In an age of smartphones and cable news and social media, it’s a different world. Kennedy had a life of privilege which, to be fair, could also be a burden, and it allowed him to walk away from this admitting to leaving the scene of an accident and getting a short, suspended sentence.
The performances are solid and serious, with Clarke seemingly tortured by the Kennedy legacy before finally embracing it. Mara brings to life the woman largely remembered for her death. Helms and Dern are standouts as they appeal to Kennedy’s better and worse instincts.
“Chappaquiddick” is no hatchet job. Instead, it offers a serious meditation on the uses and abuses of power, a story that is timely in any era.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.