Before the era of Stormy Daniels and Facebook selling our information to political campaigns, there was Chappaquiddick. All but forgotten in the epic legacy of the Kennedy family, it was the scandal that resulted in the death of an innocent woman. Senator Ted Kennedy was there. Whether he was guilty or not is another story, one that “Chappaquiddick” (2017) director John Curran attempts to weave together.
Here’s what we know happened: On July 18, 1969, in the midst of the Apollo 11 moon mission, Ted Kennedy (played by a terribly accented Jason Clarke) drove a member of Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, Mary Jo Kopechne, from a party on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., when he drove off a bridge. The car flipped upside down. Ted came out, Mary didn’t. Ted reported the incident to the police nine hours later. What happened in the span of those nine hours, and what had occurred at the party before the crash, remains unknown. According to Ted, he didn’t see the edge of the bridge in the dark, and after he crawled out of the car onto shore, he dove back in repeatedly to try and save Mary Jo. Concussed and in a daze, he left the scene, called his cousin and lawyer Joe Gargan and only managed to report the incident the next day.
But as Curran exhibits, there are some problems with this theory. Where were they going? Why didn’t Mary Jo bring her purse? Why wouldn’t Ted want the officers to investigate immediately? Why was Mary Jo’s body found with her arms holding herself up to the top of the car, as though she were keeping her head above water? Was Ted’s door unlocked and hers wasn’t? In the movie version of “Chappaquiddick,” the audience sees a different series of events. After a flirtatious (but innocent) outing with Mary Jo, Ted (who, contrary to his statement, had been drinking) accidentally drives off the bridge and, after pulling himself out, does not get back into the water. Instead he calls his astonished cousin and lawyer Joe (Ed Helms), who after trying and failing to rescue Mary Jo, makes Ted swear up and down he’ll call the police. He doesn’t. But he does call his father, patriarch Joseph Kennedy, to inform him of the situation and is met with a one-word response: “Alibi.” Now it’s suited-up cover-up time.
The accident occurred five and a half years after JFK’s assassination, and one year after RFK’s. If the Kennedys were in Homer’s the Odyssey, Ted would be Odysseus: the only one left alive, left to stand in the shadow of his dead, but immortalized, brethren. Well, except Odysseus was clever. Ted makes a series of baffling mistakes throughout the movie, like refusing to let Joe help him deal with the police and instead submitting his story hours later or donning a fake neck brace to Mary Jo’s funeral. In one of the film’s best scenes, Ted’s father Joe, who has zero trust in him, brings in an army of lawyers to explain that there are three aspects of the incident to be contained: the information the lawyers know that the public shouldn’t know, the information the lawyers don’t know that must remain unknown and the information Ted has already admitted that they need to make the public forget.
“Chappaquiddick” does most things very well. After many hard-to-watch cuts to Mary Jo’s last hours in the car, the audience is never able to forget the realities of the tragedy. The whole story is shadowed by the memories of the murdered Kennedys, and Ted’s own insecurity (especially of his father’s judgment) is crippling. Curran shows a version of events no one wants to believe: A Democratic hero, the so-called Lion of the Senate from one of the most prominent families in American history, drove drunk and succumbed to his own cowardice, dooming his passenger to drown. But the name cannot fully protect the man. In the movie, the Kennedy name is the only thing that saves Ted from complete ruin, although the incident did stop him from running for president.
In the Kennedy world, everything is politics. The first words Ted speaks to Joe in the movie are not, “A girl has died” or, “There was an accident,” but, “I’m not going to be president.” Some elements are over-dramatized — Joe Kennedy is almost comically villainous and Mary Jo’s character is depicted as a martyr of the political system; she quits after Bobby’s assassination and Ted spends most of their outing trying to convince her to come back. Don’t expect an epic, Oliver Stone-level conspiracy movie. The reality is that Ted is the only one who really knew what happened, and even if Curran didn’t piece together all of the details, the real timeline would still depict a humbling takedown of this titan of American idealism.