[This is a re-post of our Chappaquiddick review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is now playing in wide release.]
John Curran’s Chappaquiddick attempts a tricky proposition. It attempts to position Senator Ted Kennedy—brother of President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, last remaining son of influential Joe Kennedy—as someone who was powerless in the face of his overwhelming legacy. In this way, Ted Kenney was tragic since he was swept up in winds of fortune that were beyond his control. However, he was also powerful enough due to his family connections to steer the ship where he needed it to go. This renders Chappaquiddick as a surprisingly powerful drama that occasionally lapses into moments of dark comedy. It’s a movie that somehow treats Kennedy as a tragic figure and as a fool, a victim of circumstance and also someone who made all the wrong choices. Rather than lionize the “Lion of the Senate”, Chappaquiddick looks at the difficulty of trying to understand him.
On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is partying with friends on Chappaquiddick Island off the coast of Massachusetts. He’s the youngest Senate Majority Whip in history and a likely contender for the Presidency in 1972. Late that night, while driving with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara)—a friend (and possibly more) who worked with his brother Robert—his car heads off a bridge and into a pond. Somehow, Kennedy escapes the car, but Kopechne is trapped and drowns. In the fallout, Kennedy vacillates between doing the right thing no matter the consequences and trying to cover up any wrongdoing in order to protect his career.
One of the things I really loved about Chappaquiddick is how it wrestles with legacy. Ted Kennedy is a unique figure not just because of his last name, but also because of his relationship to his brothers. Forced into a career he may not have chosen due to his overbearing father Joe (Bruce Dern), Kennedy became the last best hope for the Kennedys after the deaths of John, Robert, and Joe Kennedy Jr. There was no one else to carry a baton of greatness, so in addition to dealing with the grief of losing all his brothers, he also had to be the leader they were supposed to be. That’s an unimaginable weight and the film constantly shows Ted grappling with this burden.
Thankfully, it never lets him off the hook. Curran and screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan understand that while Kennedy faced arguably impossible expectations, he wasn’t exactly a victim. He was gifted with every kind of opportunity since birth, and when he was in a bind, his father was ready with an army of fixers to mitigate the damage. The average person in Kennedy’s situation who behaved the way he did—fleeing the scene, orchestrating a cover up, etc.—likely would have seen jail time. Kennedy used it as a starting point to reelection.
Watching Kennedy swing between opportunity and integrity can make for an odd tone. In one scene, Kennedy is stepping up and giving a statement to the police chief, and a few scenes later, he’s trying on a neck brace he doesn’t need because he believes it makes him look more sympathetic. In the hands of a less gifted actor, the character might seem contrived or inconsistent, but Clarke, one of the most underappreciated actors working today, makes everything click together. Although it would have been nice if the script let us get more of a baseline on Kennedy before the crash, we can at least understand how a person in his circumstances might constantly jump between doing what is right and doing what is easy.