Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy turned out to be an outstanding Democratic U.S. Senator despite the scandal that temporarily marred his reputation as a result of the tragedy at Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. After the assassination of his brothers, there were hopes he might become president. But all hell broke loose on the night in 1969, when after partying he and an aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, went for a drive that ended in plunging off a bridge and into the water below. He escaped, she didn’t. What followed was desperate maneuvering to cleanup Kennedy’s role.
“Chappaquiddick,” directed by John Curran from a screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, dramatizes all of this, not stinting on details of Kennedy’s shabby behavior, including not reporting the accident to the police until much later and telling conflicting accounts of what happened. We see the various meetings by Kennedy advisors trying to come up with viable stories to mitigate his behavior and responsibility. Meanwhile, the film stresses the terrible loss of Mary Jo (Kate Mara) to her grieving family.
Jason Clarke gives a credible performance as the Senator, including his clumsy handling of things, and Bruce Dern is memorable as his ailing father Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., known to habitually denigrate Ted. But the father still hoped for Ted’s political future and the scandal was a blow. There is a wonderful scene when the patriarch, his face contorted from a stroke, manages a telling smile when listening to a broadcast in which Ted follows the clever tactic of using a broadcast to ask the people of Massachusetts if they want him to continue in office.
The film is fascinating in its delineation of the intrigue taking place and the difficulty of cleaning up the mess. A woman’s death, and the possibility that Kennedy had been driving under the influence, coupled with the idea that he might have saved her had he not just tried to save his own life hover over everything.
Director Curran tells the story without histrionics, which makes the events all the more disturbing as they speak for themselves. It is a tribute to Ted Kennedy that, whatever his misdeeds then, he managed to build a powerful reputation as Senator afterwards, winning widespread respect. But the new film will remind us once again of the tragedy and the political work that went into attempting to manage the scandal. Reviewed October 9, 2017.