Review: ‘Chappaquiddick’, Ted Kennedy’s Legacy Gets Battered And Bruised

“I’m not going to be President”, a somber Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) tells his overlooked friend/cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) minutes after he escaped drowning in a car that had tumbled off of a bridge in the New England island of Chappaquiddick. Little did he know how accurate he would be. If his escape had been a harrowing tale of survival then maybe that could be spun into political gold, but instead the incident, which saw Kennedy’s loyal aide Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) die in those frigid waters, would become a scandal that dogged his career to the end.

John Curran’s film Chappaquiddick isn’t so much about the crash, those details are common knowledge and have been for decades. It’s a gripping and timely tale about the concoction of the story around the scandal, and the efforts by Kennedy, using the currency of his family legacy and a distracted public, to keep his reputation intact. This is a film about power, and how being born with the right name can be enough to reshape reality.

In the summer of ’69 Ted Kennedy is still in the earliest stages of his political career, but he’s already feeling the weight of his fallen brothers, Joe, President John F. Kennedy, and Bobby who would die just a year earlier. Ted’s the public face of the family now and is expected make a move for the White House , but at this point he’s undecided on a future path, despite the pressure put on him by his father (Bruce Dern). That weekend he’s hosting a “reunion” of loyal Kennedy staffers known as the “Boiler Room Girls”, all lovely single women of 28-years-old or younger, at an event in which the only other attendees are grabby married men, most of them Kennedys or Kennedy acolytes. Mary Jo is one of those campaign staffers and she was very close to Ted, some say too close, which only complicated matters when their late night drive ended up in tragedy. Once it happens and Ted is slow to alert the police, perhaps at the cost of Mary Jo’s life, the spin machine moves into place. But not before Ted, who is wholly unsuited to political maneuvering at this point, makes a number of bone-headed errors that must be cleaned up.

Curran gets a lot of material to work with here, and along with screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan he makes the most of it. While the actual direction of the film is purely functional, the parallels drawn to today and Clarke’s powerful performance are what make this such an engrossing story. I daresay Clarke is considerably more charismatic than Ted Kennedy was back then. It’s tough to reconcile the shifty Ted Kennedy of 1969 with the stoic champion of the working class that he would be throughout his senatorial career, but you have to understand going in that this is not a film meant to bolster his reputation. It leaves him pretty scarred up, as Ted continually puts his own concerns ahead of any true justice for Mary Jo. Even his decision to reveal that it was him behind the wheel is a calculated one meant to gain sympathy, although he persists in claims that he will always follow his “true north” and do what’s right. All women are given short shrift, not just Mary Jo. Olivia Thirlby plays Mary Jo’s best friend Rachel Schiff, but she’s barely given much to do other than be another of Kennedy’s loyalists. Disappointing as the portrayal of women may be, it’s a calculation that fits with the time and the all-male group of power players involved.

It’s also interesting the depiction of the news cycle and how easily it could be manipulated. While today we both love and lament the speed which stories are broken, there was no Internet back then. There weren’t dozens of news outlets picking apart every facet of the event. If Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick were to have happened within a year or two before his death in 2009, his career would have been over that day. But in 1969 there was room to maneuver and plot out a strategy. In this case, Ted and his spin doctors were helped by the Apollo moon landing and the country’s fascination with space exploration. But mostly we see the effect that the name Kennedy has in swaying public perception and marshalling defenders. It’s an early indicator of how the names Bush, Clinton, and Obama can steer opinion in these hyper-partisan times. Suffice it to say, if he were Ted Johnson and not Ted Kennedy he would have been toast. Instead he gets off with a slap on the writst, and goes on to have one of the longest senatorial careers in U.S. history, thus proving that his rewriting of history to paint himself as a victim worked.

So again, Chappaquiddick is not hero worship of the Kennedys like so many other movies made about the most famous family in political history. In the end, Ted selfishly gives up on his “true north”, his belief in what’s right, in order to do what’s convenient. Sounds like your standard everyday politician, doesn’t it? We hate those, don’t we?  Chappaquiddick presents the Kennedys in a vastly different light than we’re accustomed to seeing, and probably won’t see again on the big screen for a long time.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5