Film review: Chappaquiddick

“We tell the truth,” Ted Kennedy tells advisers gathered at Hyannis Port in the hours after the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, “or at least our version of it.” The story of Chappaquiddick and the “lion of the Senate” comes to the big screens this weekend, telling a version of the truth that has been known for some time … and largely ignored, at least until now. Thanks to powerful performances by Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Ed Helms as Joe Gargan, the film Chappaquiddick tells the truth, but also challenges audiences to choose which version of it they will embrace.

Chappaquiddick starts us off in mid-July 1969, when the Kennedy family and its extended group of associates were reeling from the dual tragedies of assassinations. Robert had been shot down thirteen months earlier, just as he was on the cusp of winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were heading to the moon in Apollo 11, the culmination of John’s dream before he fell to an assassin’s bullet six years previously. The patriarch, Joe (Bruce Dern), is a shell of his former self after a stroke leaves him with little power of speech. All of the hopes and dreams of the Kennedy clan have dropped onto Ted’s shoulders.

Ted and his cousin Joe Gargan arranged a party for the “boiler room girls,” the affectionate nickname for RFK’s campaign secretaries. The main purpose of the weekend getaway to Chappaquiddick Island is to escape the pressure, party with the young women, and watch the moon landing. Ted wanted one in particular, Kopechne (Kate Mara), to come back to Washington to work in his office and future campaigns. That sets in motion the decisions that will lead to tragedy, although whose tragedy it is becomes a central question in Chappaquiddick.

Warning: Spoilers included.

What happens next is what the film’s trailer promises is “the untold story,” but it has been told before, in detail, in multiple forms. Those familiar with those details will not find any new surprises in the film, but instead a highly realistic walkthrough of the events of July 18-19 and the subsequent events up through Kennedy’s nationally televised speech a week after Kopechne’s death. For those who have never heard the story or the details of what happened, the truth may come as a shock, especially given the 40 years of political life Kennedy had after he abandoned the young woman and hid the accident for several hours — hours in which Kopechne might well have been rescued.

The film makes no pretense of playing with versions of the truth. It becomes immediately clear that Kennedy has nothing but his own political survival in mind, and his manipulations of everyone around him begin almost from the moment he comes out of the water. Clarke does an eerie impression of Kennedy without tipping it over into satire, but succeeds even more in capturing the self-pitying and self-centeredness of the last remaining Kennedy son.

Balancing this out is a brilliant performance from Ed Helms as Joe Gargan, a Kennedy cousin but one brought up among the Kennedys themselves. (Joe and Rose raised him after the death of his mother, Rose’s sister.) Joe’s the fixer, getting roped into Ted’s shifting explanations and actions along with family friend Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) after they both try unsuccessfully to rescue Kopechne. Ted’s buffoonery becomes even more apparent when his father’s legal and professional team stage an intervention, attempting to hide the truth while Ted’s fumbles make it impossible to contain most of the damage.

The scales begin to fall from Gargan’s eyes as Ted keeps changing his story, gradually turning Gargan into the conscience of the film and the stand-in for the audience as he grows more and more disillusioned. At one point, when Ted tries on a neck brace for the funeral, an infuriated Gargan attacks Ted and rips it off, shouting, “You’re not the victim!”

In Ted’s mind, though, it’s clear that he sees himself as a tragic hero — and that’s even before the accident. He complains that his family wanted him to jump into the race after the death of his brother, he whines about his father’s overbearing manner and desire for him to lead a “serious life,” and then after the accident laments the possibility that his greatness might never get expressed … with hardly a thought of Mary Jo Kopechne.  At nearly every turn in the film, Ted has a choice between the truth and his “version” of it, and every time he makes the wrong choice. In the end, faced with a decision about remaining in public life, he tells Gargan in a final betrayal that Moses had a bad temper and Peter betrayed Jesus, and yet both still led the people of God.

“Moses had a bad temper,” Gargan shoots back, “but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.”

That scores a direct hit, as does Chappaquiddick in general. For those familiar with the details, there is an inexorable air to it that might leave one with the feel of a true-crime re-enactment, but the performances are powerful enough to make it worth seeing in the theater. For those who never did hear the truth but got stuck with Ted’s version of it, Chappaquiddick may feel much more revelatory — and will likely inspire anger at the Kennedys and the machinery that ran over a dead girl to protect his political career. In the end, regardless of whether one knew the details before the film, we get the distinct impression that Americans either got suckered by Ted Kennedy’s mythmakers or willingly collaborated with them. Neither makes for comfortable entertainment, even if it is a long-overdue revelation.

Better late than never, though. On the Hot Air scale, Chappaquiddick gets a 5:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

The film is rated PG-13, but it contains no objectionable material except for a few instances of strong language. It’s fine for teenagers, but it may not hold their interest; that would be even more true of younger children who won’t get much of the nuances of the film anyway.

One final point: The film features good performances all the way around, but it doesn’t give Kate Mara much to do as Mary Jo Kopechne. We get an idealized version of her, and perhaps that’s all the film has time to show in order to so thoroughly deconstruct Ted Kennedy. Mara is quite good with what she’s given, as is Dern as Joe Kennedy, Clancy Brown as Robert McNamara, and longtime character actor Taylor Nichols as Ted Sorenson, whose affection for Ted carries just a hint of contempt for him as well.

Our friend C.T. Rex has his own review up on his YouTube channel. Did Chappaquiddick make him cranky? Well …

Update: I misspelled Jason Clarke’s name in the original post. It has been fixed above, and I apologize for the error.

Update: Christian Toto had already weighed in on Chappaquiddick, noting the impact that sticking to the truth has rather than chasing conspiracy theories.