As Apollo 11 was heading towards history on the Moon, there was a terrible tragedy on the island of Chappaquiddick, in which Senator Ted Kennedy flipped his car off a small bridge with no railing, and into a pond. He escaped. His passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, did not. For whatever reason, Kennedy didn’t report the accident until the next day, long after Kopechne was dead.
Conflicting accounts have persisted for almost 50 years about what really happened that night. All we know for certain is what I just typed above. Unfortunately, the movie Chappaquiddick, which recounts the incident and its aftermath, chooses the darkest timeline, defaulting to whatever the worst explanation could be for what Kennedy and his powerful family, friends, and allies did after the fact.
This is odd, given that the film was distributed by Entertainment Studios, which is owned by Byron Allen, who also owns The Weather Channel and The Grio, outlets for nuance, political fact, and insightful analysis. Watching Chappaquiddick, you would think the studio was owned by Anne fucking Coulter, given how many times the film has Kennedy do the absolute worst thing possible in a given situation.
Jason Clarke stars as Kennedy, and he certainly gives a better performance than he did in Winchester earlier this year. He also looks the part fairly well. My issue is in the way the character was presented. Ted Kennedy was far from a saint, but the film is far from fair in its treatment of him. Kennedy was known as “The Lion of the Senate,” (mentioned in a postscript when the film ends) and he was a passionate statesman and politician, which just about anyone can agree on, even if they don’t agree with his positions. Here, however, he’s like the Kennedy equivalent of Fredo Corleone: incompetent, constantly screwing up, living in his brothers’ shadows, obsessed with trying to earn his father’s love, and utterly corruptible due to his thirst for power. Seriously, take Fredo, slap on a heavily-affected New England accent, and you’ve got Jason Clarke’s Ted Kennedy.
Amazingly, Kate Mara gets second top billing as Kopechne. Her performance is fine, but it’s basically not there. The wreck happens about 15 minutes in. Mara only pops up here and there afterward, as Ted imagines her suffering before death, just in case you didn’t hate him enough already. Honestly, she’s barely there, which is a shame. There probably was a great movie here about the good person that Kopechne was. Instead we decided to spend nearly two hours on how Ted’s a sniveling loser. I’m not picking a side here, because there’s no side to pick. I’m saying the film would have been better if it had given equal weight to the woman who was lost, instead of piling on Ted, who’s been dead nearly a decade and has no way to defend himself.
Once the crash happens, there are competing forces for Ted’s attention, loyalty, and obedience. Ed Helms turns in a strong supporting performance as Joe Gargan, Ted’s cousin and personal lawyer, trying to goad Ted into doing the right thing, accepting responsibility for his actions, and ultimately resigning as a Senator. Comedian Jim Gaffigan as Paul Markham is the secondary angel on his shoulder.
On the other side, you have a giant team of lawyers and political fixers, led by Clancy Brown as Robert McNamara and Bruce Dern Ted’s father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr. As much as I love Bruce Dern, this was a bad turn, and another symptom of the nefarious leanings of the film. He only has three lines, and two of them are the word, “Alibi,” growled over a phone. Now, this is because at the time of the incident, Joe Sr. was about four months from death, and severely disabled from a series of strokes. But of course, since the first two moments of his involvement are over the phone sounding like a gargoyle, you’re left to assume that he’s some kind of demon 20 minutes before seeing him and getting a better insight. Again, it’s a subtle jab to create a biased impression. Now, by many accounts Joe Sr. was a monster, constantly abusing his four sons to “harden” them into American titans, and with the elder three dead, Ted is left to be the black sheep who was such a fuck-up that he could never live up to Joe’s expectations.
One more note on the potential tainting of the jury pool (i.e. the audience), because I don’t want to sound like I’m giving Ted a pass for getting drunk and accidentally killing a girl. One of the overriding theses of the film is that Ted so wanted to prove himself by becoming President that he’d sacrifice his very soul to get closer to it. As such, during the postscript, the film notes that Ted ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Nomination in 1980. It’s written that way to hammer home just how much of a failure Ted was. The crucial bit of information they left out was that Jimmy Carter was the incumbent President that year. Ted didn’t fail to win the nomination because the voters rejected him out of anger for this incident (then 11 years in the past), they endorsed Carter to keep from showing discord within the party. It is extremely rare to have an in-party primary challenger to a sitting President. But you know, things like facts and context seem to have been lost in the shuffle.
Where the film was most interesting was in the political theatre of Ted’s (really Joe Sr’s) team trying to bury the story. And it was interesting because it truly felt like theatre. Everyone had a part to play, McNamara was directing the lightly controlled chaos, scripts were literally being written. And then you had Teddy, looking like a dullard Marlon Brando, being the difficult “actor” on stage who would forget his lines and refuse to work with certain people. Had the film even chosen to go down that road for the duration (instead of just the back half of the third act), it might have been more compelling.
In short, one of the marketing ploys that always makes me skeptical about a movie is when it’s advertised as “Based on a true story,” or more specifically in this film’s case, “See the untold story.” Yeah, it’s untold because it’s mostly bullshit you made up. I will say in fairness that there is one bit of balanced deference, in that the film immediately dismisses the most salacious charges that Ted and Mary Jo were having an affair. They barely knew each other, and if anything, Mary Jo was one of Bobby Kennedy’s fangirls, having been a “Boiler Room Girl” working for his campaign before Sirhan Sirhan had his say say with his gun gun. The movie at least does its due diligence to dismiss that nonsense.
Still, though, given that this was one of the most salacious political scandals of the 20th century, the film was at times too procedural and boring. My girlfriend literally fell asleep momentarily halfway through. I never knew Ted Kennedy. I only ever saw him once, from afar (during my senior year trip to Washington in high school we visited Arlington National Cemetery on the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and the remaining clan was at his perpetual flame grave, and I saw Teddy’s head bowed in prayer). I don’t know if he was a good person or a bad person. I know he dedicated his life to public service, and was a key component of many positive bits of legislation, and that’s more than enough to avoid the hatchet job this movie apparently tried to be, and again, even then its biggest sin was that it was boring. If this is the “incredible untold story,” maybe it would have been for the best to let it remain untold.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your thoughts on the Kennedy family, or Ted in particular? Who could go for some lahbtsah or some good clam chowdah right now? Let me know!