Director: John Curran
Screenwriters: Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan
Runtime: 106 mins.
Australian release date: 10 May 2018
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 18 April 2018.
Chappaquiddick shows us that if you convince yourself of a particular version of something, you’ll soon end up believing it to be true. The hard part is cooking up your story in the first place. This is borne out by the events that took place in the hours after the infamous accident on Martha’s Vineyard in July 1969, when Senator Ted Kennedy, the last remaining brother of the political clan, nearly met his maker when the car he was driving, accompanied by a young female aide, drove off the edge of a wooden bridge. The fact that he walked away unscathed (and carried on serving in the US Senate for the next 40 years), while the young woman drowned, trapped in the car, goes to show that in politics, as in life, it’s not what you know but who that counts. Director John Curran, who Australian viewers will know from his films Tracks and Praise, gives us a straightforward explanation of this momentous event and the massive cover-up that followed it.
After a sailing race with his buddy Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), the Attorney-General of Massachusetts, and his cousin and ‘fixer’ Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), Ted Kennedy (Aussie actor Jason Clarke, most recently seen in Winchester) attends a party taking place on Chappaquiddick Island that includes Democratic Party staffers referred to as The Boiler Room Girls. He seems a bit distant and distracted and offers to give Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a political campaign strategist who’d worked on his brother Bobby’s campaign, a lift back to her hotel on Martha’s Vineyard. En-route they stop for a chat and there is an indication that the two are close but the script only hints at anything more than that. When they resume their journey, Kennedy misses the correct turn-off and his car goes over the side of the Dike Bridge, landing upside down in the shallow water. Somehow he manages to escape but Mary Jo doesn’t. This could have gone down as an unavoidable accident but for Kennedy’s subsequent behaviour: he fled the scene, walking back to the party and engaging the help of his sailing buddies to return to the site of the accident, instead of immediately contacting the relevant authorities in the hope of rescuing Mary Jo from the submerged vehicle; then he initially claimed that Kopechne was the driver; and it wasn’t until the next day that he went to the local police. Later, when he visited his father, Joe Kennedy Sr. (Bruce Dern), who was confined to a wheel chair, to tell him what happened, he was treated with utter contempt by the ageing man who spat out one word - “alibi” - the only advice he gave his troubled son. Acting on his own, old Joe called in his political fixers, and from then on Ted was largely reduced to being a bystander in the unfolding cover-up.
Chappaquiddick is fascinating because Ted Kennedy has escaped the celluloid scrutiny that his brothers have received. As co-writer Taylor Allen says, referring to films like Oliver Stone’s JFK and Emilio Estevez’s Bobby that have explored the older Kennedys’ lives, “As a human being, he’s so under-explored in cinematic terms. Once you start looking into who Ted was, all roads lead to Chappaquiddick.” Clarke plays Teddy as though he’s the real victim and he does it in such a subdued manner that it’s unnerving to watch. He is phenomenal as Kennedy, so much so that after a short time you forget you’re not watching the real person on screen. When he utters the words, “I’m not going to be President,” having realised the ramifications of what has happened, the most notable fact is that he’s more concerned about the loss of his political ambitions than the loss of the life of Mary Jo Kopechne. Bruce Dern is searing in his small role as the bitter patriarch of the Kennedy clan. His character can barely speak but what he can’t say he demonstrates in the most articulate, brutal fashion.
John Curran has put together a fine piece of work that will introduce a new generation to a slice of history that won’t be forgotten for some time yet. Chappaquiddick doesn’t make any claims that haven’t been considered before, at least in books and newspapers, so the question has to be asked - why release this film now, so long after the event? One can only assume it is a study in the machinations of politics and how principles are muddied when politicians do something wrong. It draws parallels with the current state of affairs in the USA, which is now in the grip of a president who rails at ‘fake news’ and yet dishes it out in spades.