A curse hangs over the youngest of the Kennedys
Famous 1970s scandal finally made into film
Directed by John Curran
Screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan
Starring Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols
Political scandal tests integrity and honesty; the youngest of the Kennedys, Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) fails this test in his apparent indifference to Mary Jo Kopechne’s (Kate Mara) death. While on Chappaquiddick island, Ted, with Ms. Kopechne seated beside him, drives his car over the bridge and into the water one night, setting off the infamous scandal of the 1970s. The accident proves fatal for Ms. Kopechne but not so for Ted, who surfaces and manages to escape and not report the incident until 10 hours later. The pressures are real for Ted, as he hopes to live up to the Kennedy name after the death of Bob Kennedy and to please his father. Ted wants to forge his own path (i.e. to not run for presidency) despite the insistence of people around him and when given the chance to do so, chooses not to.
Vulnerable as he is, the film portrays Ted as the criminal, culpable for his actions but protected by good looks and a good name. It’s hard to feel sorry for Ted, who is given multiple chances by the ever moral Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) to do the right thing, and chooses not to. Joe pleads with him to report the incident as soon as possible, but Ted phones the police 10 hours after the incident, a point when she couldn’t be saved and he could be culpable for her death. The political family and their control of the media taints the decade and political morality forever. On this island, who gets to know what and when are the questions asked by journalists but controlled by the entitled.
Chappaquiddick is a film that’s been a long time coming. History remembers Ted Kennedy for Chappaquiddick, the looming shadow that haunted the surviving Kennedy brother’s reputation. Kennedy remained in the Senate for four decades after the scandal, but during the cover up, his accident put his political career at risk, criminal charges, and ultimately prevented him from becoming president.
I found its honest, sober portrayal of Ted Kennedy a welcome change to feel-good political dramas, but despite my historical fascination, the film does not gel together for me due to its inconsistency. It seemed to pack together three half-formed arcs into one film: Ted Kennedy tries to prove himself to his father, breaks his friendship with Joe, and fights to hush up the scandal while remaining truthful. These three stories would work well if fleshed out more; the slow, dream-like first half of the film barely registers with me while three stories fill the tense, more compelling second half.
Perhaps that’s what was lacking for me. The first half was crucial. It triggers the aftermath. But Ted Kennedy’s lack of urgency to save the girl and the slow uptick give me little to look forward to. The moral arc is a flat line (Ted doesn’t change). Sure, films don’t have to feel satisfying or end with a cheery bang. They can begin and end as whimpers, apathetic to morality. But while the film condemns Ted Kennedy through Clarke’s charismatic and mean-spirited acting of a man who let a girl die, it’s hard to care when the first half is dragged through the waters, leaving the second half to trudge back home soaking and desperate as Ted is wont to be.