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Movie review: ‘Chappaquiddick’ reveals tragedy and Kennedy’s poor decisions

Chappaquiddick; 101 minutes; Rated PG-13

By Chris Honoré

for Revels

“Chappaquiddick” is a surprisingly intense, carefully paced and meticulously crafted film that examines an accident and its aftermath, one involving Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, aka Ted/Teddy, and a 28-year-old campaign staffer, Mary Jo Ko Kopechne, who worked for the recently assassinated Bobby Kennedy.

The year is 1969. The setting is Martha’s Vineyard where the senator and aides are hosting a dinner for the women who are referred to as “the Boiler Room Girls.” The gathering is meant to express gratitude by Kennedy et al. for their hard work in the late senator’s campaign for president.

Although never expressed overtly, there is an attraction between Teddy (Jason Clarke) and Mary Jo (Kate Mara).

At some point in the evening, Teddy suggests that the two of them drive to the beach, and so they leave the dinner. The senator drives (though he has been drinking), and Mary Jo sits quietly in the passenger-seat. It’s dark, the country road narrow, and they take a wrong turn heading not to the ferry or the beach but down a dusty lane leading to a wooden bridge with a channel pond just below. Teddy misjudges the entrance onto the bridge and the car plunges into the shallow water landing upside down. Somehow Kennedy manages to escape from the flooding car (he’s never able to explain how) and later insists that he made numerous attempts to extract Mary Jo from the car. Failing to find her, he swims to a nearby bank where he sits for some 15 minutes staring at the submerged car.

It’s at that point that “Chappaquiddick” becomes a character study of a famous politician who is nurturing presidential aspirations, while focusing on how he confronts what is initially viewed as a tragedy. He inexplicably makes one decision after the next that, in the aggregate, reveal him to be unable to act with integrity. It’s a bleak portrait, and as events begin to take shape, it is the word “inexplicable” that frames all that follows the accident.

First, Kennedy walks, yes walks, back to the cottage where the party is still ongoing (there is a house only yards from the bridge and car). He finds his cousin, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), and U.S .Attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and they drive back to the bridge where the two men dive to attempt to get the car doors open. They also fail. They tell Kennedy that he must immediately report the accident, and he agrees, and then leaves them, returning to his hotel room where he crawls into bed and falls asleep. The next morning, he gets up and has brunch with friends. Finally, some 10 hours after the accident, he reports what happened to the local police. Meanwhile, during that time period, there are flashes of Mary Jo, her face pressed against the roof of the car where an air pocket has formed, trying to breathe and calling out the senator’s name. These scenes create the assumption that she was alive and desperate for hours post-accident and could have been saved.

After Ted delivers a written statement to the police, he returns to Hyannis Port and the Kennedy compound where a circle of advisors arrives and begins the unconscionable process of creating a narrative of how and why the senator was in that car with Mary Jo and why he took hours before seeking help. It is an awful depiction of these men, Kennedy’s enablers, as they polish Ted’s story to a high gloss, portraying him as a victim. Stunningly, Kopechne is all but ignored while her grieving parents are lost in grief and silence.

This film is painful to watch. But it’s never melodramatic; rather it’s studied and deliberate, allowing the timeline to evolve, hour after hour, revealing Kennedy to be a man who seems to have been followed most of his life by others who have taken responsibility for his bad choices and ultimately asked to fix them (Joe Gargan is, at one point, called Ted’s “fixer”).

Embedded in “Chappaquiddick” is the question: Who are the people such as the senator whose public personas disguise the individual behind the mask? And why are we perpetually surprised when they are revealed to have feet of not marble but clay?

There is also the issue of redemption, for, as it turns out, Kennedy was repeatedly chosen by the people of Massachusetts to be their senator, allowing him to spend the next 40 years in Congress where he became known as “the Lion of the Senate.” Were those four decades of hard work and service a tenacious and unyielding search for personal forgiveness? The senator, the last Kennedy brother, never fully explained how that tragic accident shaped the rest of his life.