“Chappaquiddick” hit theaters this April and has already managed to stir up an almost 50-year-old controversy, bringing the Kennedy name newfound attention. Through a gripping, winding conflict between conscience and political gain, the film brilliantly highlights the corruptions that can come with political power.
“Chappaquiddick” is based off the true story of the 1969 “Chappaquiddick Incident,” in which nationally-adored Sen. Ted Kennedy, played by Jason Clarke, drove his car off a bridge after a night of drinking on Chappaquiddick Island, killing his female passenger.
He left his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, played by Kate Mara, in the flooded car without calling for help. Following his questionable and negligent response to the accident, Kennedy struggled between salvaging his political future or telling the truth.
When a director decides to tackle a film based on a true story, and especially when the story is mired in controversy and mystery, he or she must tread very lightly. If the story is told with too much certainty, the movie will be accused of rewriting history. If it is too vague, it will be accused of lacking a message.
These are the lines John Curran found himself treading while making “Chappaquiddick,” and he stayed within them decently. While drawing enough conclusions to make a compelling drama, the film tries to avoid some of the murkier questions regarding the controversy. For example, the film almost entirely lacks any mention of alleged sexual relations between Kennedy and Kopechne.
Another problem a director faces when making a film like “Chappaquiddick” is avoiding making the protagonist too one-dimensional. If Kennedy portrayed as too cold, he would be seen as a caricature, but if too charismatic, the film would be accused of sympathizing with a criminal.
Curran’s directing and Clarke’s acting masterfully maneuver through this minefield. While consistently showing the darker nature of Kennedy, the film also explains the strain put on Kennedy that turned him into a man willing to leave Kopechne alone off the coast of Chappaquiddick Island.
For a film set in 1969, the problem “Chappaquiddick” tackles is shockingly topical.
In the age of the #MeToo movement, the prospect of a man in a position of power facing zero repercussions after harming a female subordinate is eerily familiar. Throughout the film, it is hard to not seethe with anger while watching a cool-faced Kennedy spew lie after lie and face no time in prison after leaving Kopechne to die. The film manages to point out the flawed system that allowed Kennedy to behave so cruelly, while avoiding preaching at the audience.
The film only gets more infuriating when the credits roll, and it sinks in that this is only partly a work of fiction. A living, breathing Mary Jo Kopechne did die off the coast of Chappaquiddick Island under questionable circumstances, and Ted Kennedy continued to serve in Senate for 40 more years.
“Chappaquiddick” is a testament to the idea that not even manslaughter can tear down a man so deeply rooted in the political system, especially in the 1960s.
Despite the infuriating nature of “Chappaquiddick,” it is almost as if the film does not realize that it is supposed to be enraging. The film strolls along leisurely, with little emotion interjected from any of the other characters.
Almost all frustration directed at Ted is due to his inability to run a cover-up campaign, rather than for his actual actions. The only notable character that actively stands against Ted is his cousin Joseph Gargan, played by Ed Helms, who pushes Kennedy to tell the truth and resign from the Senate. Apart from Gargan’s isolated outbursts of frustration, the film never seems to flatly state that Kennedy behaved incorrectly, making sure to leave the final verdict up to the viewer.
Long after “Chappaquiddick” leaves theaters, the name of that island in Martha’s Vineyard will continue to haunt the Kennedy name for years to come.