The Kennedys may be one of America’s most celebrated families, their political legacy one that’s bursting with tragedy and intrigue. The true story of the night of July 18, 1969, when a likely drunken Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and killed his young female passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, is depicted in “Chappaquiddick,” a meticulously detailed account of the aftermath of the accident. If you’re seeking clear answers about the scandal, you aren’t going to find them here. What you will find is a fascinating retelling of a privileged man’s batch of behind-the-scenes fixers, the dark side of the mechanics that kept the Kennedy engine running.
After a night of heavy drinking with family and friends, Ted (Jason Clarke) got behind the wheel of his car to drive Mary Jo (Kate Mara) to the island’s ferry terminal. Along the way, the car ended up careening off the bridge and into the water below. Somehow Kennedy was able to escape the submerged vehicle, walking away from the scene and failing to report the incident until the next morning.
There are a lot of questions that have been raised about this scandal over the years, and none of them are clearly addressed. Screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan and director John Curran don’t even take a strong stand on the issue themselves, they simply present a list of facts and instead wisely choose to focus on the a man’s unethical and borderline immoral efforts to save his own political legacy. Fixers have always existed on the Washington scene but there’s an additional layer of disconcerting discomfort when you realize this is a common abuse of power that’s sadly relevant nearly 50 years later. Modern politicians still operate this way because it’s all about the image.
Ted’s disturbing act of cowardice isn’t sensationalized in the least. None of the supposed hearsay nor rumors are addressed here (there’s only a very brief mention in background dialogue that Kopechne may have been pregnant, and the suspicion that nobody was actually in the car when it left the bridge is left out entirely). The film never falls into the dreaded movie of the week trap because it doesn’t parade out every sordid detail or conspiracy theory. I left the theater wanting more of the story.
The film never makes its audience feel sorry for Ted either, although it certainly tries with emotional scenes involving Ted and his father Joe (Bruce Dern), a son who was always a disappointment to his elder. If anything, there are critical questions raised that are never answered, making it a suspenseful and compelling (if convenient) blur of fact and fiction. This is a political drama for grown ups and is a well made look at a past event that has always haunted the lion of the Senate.