On the night of July 18, 1969, a car drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts and plunged into a tidal channel. The car was driven by Senator Ted Kennedy, who swam free, left the scene and did not report the incident for 10 hours — while his passenger in the car, a 28-year-old campaign worker for Robert Kennedy named Mary Jo Kopechne, died, possibly from drowning but most likely by suffocation over the course of two to four hours in the submerged vehicle.
That incident, perhaps the most shameful in the turbulent history of the Kennedy dynasty, forms the basis of the new film Chappaquiddick, in which Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) gives a superb performance as Ted Kennedy as he navigates the aftermath of the crash and its personal, political and social implications. Directed by John Curran, Chappaquiddick is low-key and restrained — almost too restrained at times, because under its strangely passive surface is a blistering attack on how power can escape accountability that never quite hits the mark.
When we meet Clarke’s Kennedy, he already seems like a haunted man — tormented by the assassination of his brothers John and Robert, by his strained relationship with his now stroke-paralyzed father (Bruce Dern) and by the unspoken pressure on him to pick up the mantle left behind by his much more charismatic siblings. None of that, however, is an excuse for what happens that fateful evening when he leaves a reunion of Bobby’s campaign workers with Mary Jo (Kate Mara) and, taking a wrong turn on a dirt road, heads for the bridge that arguably changes the course of history.
Curran, working from a screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, recounts the rest of what happened in a step-by-step fashion that seemingly sticks to the facts while leaving other questions unanswered, even in a speculative fashion. Was there a relationship between Kennedy and Kopechne? (Kennedy denied there was.) Did Kennedy have too much to drink before he got behind the wheel? What exactly was going through his head during those critical hours when Kopechne might have been saved? All that is left for the viewer to ponder, which also leaves Chappaquiddick narratively hampered.
We’re never quite drawn into Kennedy’s head by the script, which makes the job that Clarke does all the more extraordinary. He’s got the inflections down without doing a rote imitation, and in certain light and camera angles he bears an eerie resemblance to the real man. In some ways, he remains a cipher, which makes the story frustrating at times but is perhaps closer to the public’s real-life perception of the man. Clarke conveys Kennedy’s inner torment well, along with his sense of entitlement and a hint of arrogance, and yet the mystery is whether the man was tortured more by guilt over Kopechne’s death or his failure to live up to his father’s ambitions and his brother’s legacies.
Also impressive are Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan as, respectively, Kennedy’s cousin Joe Grogan and former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Paul Markham, who were with Kennedy on the night of the incident and are the first two of many handlers who wrestle with the situation. Both men handle dramatic roles well and serve as the better angels of Kennedy’s conscience, pleading with him to do the right thing even as the weigh their loyalty to the man against their own personal reputations and culpability. Most impressive is Dern, who conveys his disappointment, rage and frustration with monosyllabic croaks and strangled half-words that nevertheless let the younger Kennedy know exactly where he stands with his diminished yet still monstrous father.
Less impressive is the cadre of advisers that descends on the Kennedy compound in the wake of the tragedy to manage it on behalf of Joe, led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown). In an almost jarringly comic introduction, Ted walks into the front room of the house and is ambushed by the group of lawyers and ex-government officials, who provide exposition and advice but never seem to leave the room — they are always there to take the next phone call or analyze the latest news report. And poor Mary Jo, while played appealingly by Kate Mara and treated with dignity by the film, remains elusive as a character herself.
Because we may never know the truth about the real-life incident, Chappaquiddick sort of winds down instead of coming to a climax, as Kennedy gives his televised speech in which he throws himself on the mercy of the people of Massachusetts. He certainly never had to do the same with the legal system, getting off with a relatively light charge of leaving the scene of an accident despite the possibility of criminal negligence or worse.
The movie never fully takes a position either way, although it’s clear that the case of Kennedy — whose presidential aspirations were dashed by the incident, but who did stay in the U.S. Senate to become a legendary figure there — is a blot both on his family’s legacy and the long and esteemed history of American liberalism. In the end, Chappaquiddick is a moderately compelling yet relatively minor look at a major moment in the country’s history — and it probably deserved bigger treatment that the modern studio system would deign to give it these days.
Chappaquiddick is out in theaters now.