In July of 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy co-hosted a party on secluded Chappaquiddick Island, near Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. Attending the party would be a number of Kennedy family friends and six young women who had worked for the late Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. One of the women, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, accepted a ride back to the hotel from Ted Kennedy, who lost control of his car and drove off the side of a narrow, unlit bridge into a shallow pond. Kennedy escaped from the car; Kopechne did not. The senator waited to report the accident for more than 10 hours, casting a veil of suspicion and distrust that would follow him throughout his career and effectively derail his presidential ambitions.
John Curran’s 2017 Chappaquiddick takes the frame of what is, 50 years later, absolutely known about the incident and fills in the gaps with a sturdy, meditative drama about grief, guilt, and ambition. Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is the attractive, affable scion of a beloved political dynasty, still reeling from his brother Robert’s death. Kopechne (Kate Mara) is also haunted by events of the year before, casting a shadow over the sunny seaside proceedings. But their screen time is tragically cut short by the accident. Kennedy, bewildered and horrified, makes various attempts to recover her with the assistance of his friends Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan). Gargan, presented in the film as Kennedy’s closest friend and moral compass, suggests Kennedy call the authorities. He does not. Instead, he calls his father, Joseph Kennedy (Bruce Dern).
Dern plays Kennedy as a wheelchair-bound tyrant. The patriarch demands nothing short of a full denial of responsibility from his son.
Gargan, by contrast, holds his friend to a much higher standard and encourages him to be honest, no matter the consequence. It’s not easy to play a character hampered by unromantic, pedestrian flaws, and Clarke does an exceptional job portraying a man trying to thread the needle between ambition and morality — and between two commanding performances from Dern and Helms — and coming out in an unenviable middle position defined by egotism and cowardice.
It is not a flattering picture, nor is it a hatchet job. Curran doesn’t seem interested in truly darkening the legacy of the late Ted Kennedy, who would go on to spend nearly 50 years in the Senate after the events portrayed in Chappaquiddick. The film is tasteful, judicious, and beautifully shot (though never have summery late-’60s pastels looked so chilly). It’s not so much about politics — at least not politics in a capital-P, nightly-news way — but about the way powerful men can be undone by expectations and their own failure, in a moment, to live up to them.
The Transylvania County Library (212 South Gaston St., Brevard) presents Chappaquiddick as part of its free Second Look Films series on Thursday, May 9, at 12pm. Free. Popcorn, also free, will be available. For more information, call 828-884-3151 or see library.transylvaniacounty.org.