Movie review: ‘Chappaquiddick’ shows Kennedy’s darkest hour
Full confession: I’ve never been a fan of Ted Kennedy. But that’s not why I come in praise of director John Curran’s takedown of the deceased senator in his scathing docudrama, “Chappaquiddick.” For Kennedy lovers, it will be a bridge too far, but for detractors, it’s a long overdue comeuppance for a deeply flawed icon who wasn’t that far removed from Richard Nixon in his need for power and self-preservation.
What struck me most was how cleverly the movie skewers the devious way politicians think and behave, from the shaky relationship our representatives have with facts to their carefully constructed image-building that knows no moral or ethical bounds, such as when an office-holder like Kennedy can call in favors to beat a manslaughter rap as he did in July 1969.
You know the story: Last surviving Kennedy brother goes for an alcohol-fueled joy ride off Martha’s Vineyard with one of his slain brother’s ex-campaign aides, speeds away from a local deputy; drives off a bridge and lands his 1967 Oldsmobile in the drink. Somehow, he manages to swim away, leaving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne behind to die — not from drowning — but suffocation, because the senator never bothered to call for help, choosing instead to head back to Edgartown for a good night’s sleep, a hearty breakfast and some good strategizing with his top aides before finally notifying police there might be a dead woman trapped inside his overturned car.
But wait, that’s not even the most despicable part. That would be the ensuing cover-up, one so botched, Kennedy aide Robert McNamara quipped, “The Bay of Pigs was a better-run operation.” In many ways, the trail of ineptitude unfolding over the week of July 18-25, 1969, is reminiscent of the zany goings on in last month’s “The Death of Stalin.” But this is no satire; it’s depressingly real.
Culled by screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan from the transcripts of the “accident” inquest, “Chappaquiddick” is an unnerving indictment of a justice system playing favorites with the rich and powerful. But even more, it’s a reminder that politicians are a scared, frightened bunch with fluctuating integrity. Kennedy may have been called “the lion of the Senate,” but here he’s the liar-in-chief, constantly changing his story, even going so far as making a cheap plea for sympathy by strapping on a fake neck brace while attending Kopechne’s funeral. And at the root of it all is Kennedy’s need to save his hide, protect the Kennedy myth and maintain his Senate seat at any cost.
As played beautifully by Aussie Jason Clarke (“Mudbound”), the Ted Kennedy we see is a self-absorbed weasel refusing to take any responsibility for his actions. Instead, he tries to cast himself as the hero, claiming to have done everything he could to save Kopechne (Kate Mara). And his two closest pals, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms, sensational in a rare dramatic role) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), are called upon to repeatedly lend credence to his lies, while speechwriter Ted Sorensen and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (a surprisingly funny Clancy Brown) work to mold the perfect alibi.
Adding to the film’s power is Curran’s use of man’s first steps on the moon as a running backdrop that juxtaposes real heroes like astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong with the spoiled, silver-spooned rich kid forever trying to prove himself to his stroke-striken father, Joe (Bruce Dern). For Kennedy, the heroics of the moon landing are a blessing, relegating the news of Kopechne’s suspicious death to bottom-of-the-page headlines. Curran also gets the look of the period down pat, but the production’s low budget prevents him from buying the rights to songs of the era that would have enhanced the film’s attention to detail.
The result is a movie more suited to a slot on Lifetime than a large movie screen, which only draws more attention to the film’s no-frills production values. What saves it are the fine performances and a story that manages to be suspenseful even though most people know just about every detail walking in. Adding to this resonance is how “Chappaquiddick” so closely relates to today, both in terms of the #MeToo movement and the lies and deceptions perpetrated by a majority of politicians busily using falsehoods to distract from the truth.
Still, you can’t help feeling a tiny bit dirty enjoying a movie intent on tarnishing Ted Kennedy’s legacy, but then you remember he pretty much destroyed it himself, allowing what happened that hot July night to squelch any chance of making a legit run for the presidency. But losing a shot at the White House is nothing compared to what Kopechne lost. It is she Curran most wants us to remember, an innocent woman who needlessly died because the one man who could have saved her sickeningly valued his reputation more than her life.
Cast includes Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Clancy Brown and Taylor Nichols.
(PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language and historical smoking.)