Over the weekend, I saw two films. One made me clench my arms and legs, bite my lip and hold onto my seat. The second made me sick to my stomach. This is a paraphrase of what my daughter said after seeing Chappaquiddick. This straightforward retelling of the tragedy from 1969, should enrage, depress and gut punch you in a way that is a lot less enjoyable than a horror film. This episode from the life of a lionized political figure should cause some serious reassessment of his place in the pantheon of Kennedy family heroes. Ted Kennedy may have grown from this time to represent something more in political fields, but the social reputation he had towards the end of his life suggests that he had the same aura of entitlement that lead to the disgraceful events depicted in this movie.
The film does not really depict anything that was not known about the events leading up to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. There was a party, he drove her to meet the ferry, he was flustered on the road and seen driving erratically by a local police officer, then drove down an unpaved road and off the side of a bridge that had no guardrail. Ted Kennedy got out of the car, she did not. Some officials believe she had suffocated rather than drowned. It is possible had they been called earlier, she could have been rescued or maybe she was already dead. There was no autopsy. Ted Kennedy did not report the accident for nine hours, by that time it had already been discovered by others. Kennedy denied drinking or driving under the influence, but ten hours after the accident, BAC tests were not likely to discover much. Before he contacted authorities, Kennedy contacted his group of political advisers, his friends and his family. There was some talk of saying that she was driving, but the Senator did not make that claim to the police.
The visualization of all the events in the film seems to be as objective as possible. This movie is not a hit piece, no suggestion of a sexual encounter is made, and most of the aftermath is public record. Some phone calls and conversations between Kennedy and his Father are dramatized. If there is a sense of the melodramatic it is in those moments, which are of course the most speculative. Everything else demonstrates how political necessity trumped justice in this case. Within a week Kennedy plead guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and got a two month suspended sentence. One thing the film definitely gets right is that much of the news impact of this event was washed away in the other news story of the day, man first stepping on the moon. The media did address the accident, but it was mostly willing to let the explanations of public officials who had connections to the Kennedy family, go by without much follow up.
Actor Jason Clarke, who coincidentally was born the day before the events depicted in this film, portrays Ted Kennedy and does a solid job. While not a perfect physical match, he seems to have the same sort of expressive face as Kennedy and his accent and vocals match the Senators without being mimicking. The screenplay highlights the self centered attitude and actions taken by the Senator. The suggestion is that he did not like being managed, but that he was not capable of managing himself. The ridiculous neck brace that he wore in public to the funeral of Miss Kopechne is emblematic of how important it was to listen to advisers with better political instincts. Clarke almost makes Kennedy a figure of more than self-pity, even though as is pointed out by his friend, cousin and political retainer, “you are NOT the victim.” Kennedy was surrounded by friends who gave him good advice, and they were lawyers including a U.S. Attorney. He ignored their pleas and made things worse. Clarke uses his narrow eyes and gaping mouth to convey Kennedy’s befuddlement over his own stupidity.
If there is a moral conscience to the film it is Ed Helms as cousin Joe Gargan. Helms conveys the loyalty of a friend with the pragmatics of the circumstances. Every time he thinks the Senator is getting it right, he will end up being disappointed. You can see his growing disdain for the choices that are being made and when he ultimately ends up holding the cue cards for the supposedly “from the heart” moment of Kennedy’s television address, the visual loss of respect on his face shows that Helms is in fact a good actor, capable of much more than the comedies he is known for. Clancy Brown makes an imposing Robert McNamara, the second portrayal of this figure on screen in the last two months. Bruce Dern is suitably old, and quiet as Joseph Kennedy Sr., who is presented as having little respect for his youngest son. The politics of personal destruction, which is the current game plan of most politicians these days, may not have started here, but this is where it grew up. Spin management requires an active and immediate response. Too bad for Mary Jo Kopechne that Senator Kennedy did not learn those lessons before he drove off the bridge.