A Flawed But Human Ted Kennedy
“Chappaquiddick” which was directed by John Curran, is a historical drama about the infamous car accident on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18th, 1969 when Senator Ted Kennedy accidentally drove his car off into a body of water resulting in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.
The film takes place in a short amount of time that includes the afternoon prior to the accident, the accident and the immediate aftermath. While we may never know exactly what happened on the night of July 18th, screenwriters, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, give us compelling picture of what might have been. The screenplay uses the themes of why Ted Kennedy waited so long to report the accident, family loyalty and reputation.
Jason Clarke is perfect as Ted Kennedy. He totally stays away from what could have easily been a caricature of Ted Kennedy. He plays Kennedy as a deeply conflicted man who as the last living Kennedy son, feels the constant pressure of being in the shadows of his brothers Joe Jr., John and Bobby. From the start of the film, even before the car accident, Ted is uncertain of what exactly he wants to be politically. He feels a duty to his family and the Kennedy name. Throughout the film, we clearly see that what Ted is really after is the approval of his stroke afflicted, wheelchair bound father, Joseph Kennedy (Bruce Dern), who despite being frail and ill, still looms heavily over Ted (but then he had no other sons to do that to).
The film begins with Ted hosting a reunion for “the boiler room girls”, the women that had worked for his brother, Robert F. Kennedy at a rented house on Chappaquiddick Island in Martha’s Vineyard. One of the women there is Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) who is still understandably shook up by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy that just happened a year prior. Ted wants Mary Jo to work for him. Their kinship is clear from the get-go but only hours later in the evening will Mary Jo end up dead.
The film shows what might have been going through Ted’s mind after the accident. Scenes of him in shock in a bathtub, reaching out to his father for advice (albeit not good advice) and finally going back to the party to tell his cousin, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and US District Attorney, Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) what happened. Joe tells Ted to report the accident.
but Ted did not do so until the following morning. What happens afterwards is really messy. The aftermath is messy. Ted retreats to his father’s home where a team of lawyers and public relations men are waiting for him. “Chappaquiddick” gives us what I believe to be an earnest portrayal of the last living son in one of America’s most powerful and revered political dynasties at his lowest, darkest hours. What makes the film work is it’s non-partisan treatment of the subject. For me this is even more interesting since I am in Boston and the Kennedys are the royal family here. The name Kennedy opens doors here.
“Chappaquiddick” never condones or condemns— It simply tries to answer why Ted Kennedy took ten hours to report the accident. The film never has to go one way or the other in presenting the facts, it simply reflects and engages its audience.
We see a portrait of privilege and tragedy that reminds us that the myth of the Kennedys is fascinating. Until I lived in the Kennedy state, I never really understood the American obsession with the Kennedys and I see that we love them and hate them at the same time. Stop to think about it a moment. Have you ever heard a good word about Joe Kennedy, Sr.? On the other hand, have you ever heard anything negative about mother Rose Kennedy? Ted Kennedy really had no choice and had to pick up where his brothers left off.
Teddy Kennedy was the kid brother who was doomed to survive, forced into a position for which he was not up to or ready for. Does any of this have to do with Edward M. Kennedy driving off a bridge in Martha’s Vineyard with woman who died as a result.
“Chappaquiddick” takes us through that Edgartown weekend and its aftermath with “imagined precision.” The portrait that emerges of Kennedy is damning but human and might be accurate. It is implied here that both Mary Jo and Ted were still in great pain over the death of Robert (and John) and we see America as a country aching for the last Kennedy to announce a White House run, while that man has no such plans. We get no suggestion of a physical relationship between Ted and Mary Jo but the film does hint that that might have been about to change.
Gargan urged Kennedy to do the right thing (tell the truth, resign) while a roomful of powerful men scheme how best to save the family legacy and keep a Kennedy in the running. Those who were there then were Kennedy adviser and speechwriter Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) and former defense secretary Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown). They were called there by Joseph P. Kennedy himself. We hear Joe on the telephone saying the word “alibi” and we watch as Ted changes from perpetrator to victim. Have we forgotten that at the same time the Apollo 11 moon landing took place and Neil Armstrong’s one step for mankind is held up and cattily next to Ted Kennedy’s failure that night.
This is a fine film and while you probably will not learn anything new, you will be given something to think about.