“I want to be a great man. I just don’t know who I am.”
On July 18, 1969, a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy (Jason Clarke) went off a narrow bridge. Riding in the car was a young woman political staffer, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). Kennedy escaped the car, but Kopechne was trapped inside and drown. It was ten hours before Kennedy reported the accident. That is the bare bone facts of one of the major political scandals of the last century. It brought an end to Kennedy’s presidential ambitions. And it is the subject of a new film from John Curran, Chappaquiddick.
Because there has been so much controversy around these events, this is a picture that could have been taken in various directions: a smarmy story of a secret romance gone bad, a conspiracy theory tale, or a defense of a politician wrongly accused. Instead this film seeks to lay the story out, without innuendo, but also being clear that there was a great deal being spun behind the scenes that may well have muddied the waters for the general public.
We see Kennedy and Kopechne (and many others) at a party for staffers on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. Kennedy is still undecided if he is going to run for President in 1972 as everyone expects. When the two leave, so Kennedy can think out loud with her, they eventually end up on a narrow road with a sharp turn to a bridge. After the accident, Kennedy walks back into town, where instead of notifying authorities, he goes to bed.
The next day, he calls Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) to help him figure out what to do. It is assumed Joe can fix anything. But as the news begins to break, Teddy’s father Joe (Bruce Dern), now very old and somewhat infirm, musters the Kennedy troops to protect the family’s political future. It isn’t so much a matter of covering up as it is of managing and spinning how the facts are reported. It helped a great deal that all of this was happening while Apollo 11 was making the first moon landing. Watching how this news spin plays out over a few days is a reminder of how the information we get in the news media is often already tainted by the time its reported.
For the most part, though, this is a film that tries to understand Ted Kennedy through these events. It is neither a complimentary picture nor a character assassination. Rather he comes across as someone who wants to do the right thing, but he isn’t quite sure how to do what everyone wants from him. The relationship he has with his father is especially difficult. As the youngest of the four Kennedy sons, he had a great deal to live up to—especially in his father’s eyes. His father’s disappointment is both severe and cruel.
Kennedy is expected to do everything the team of advisors tells him, but often he just wants to do what is right—even if it is harmful to his career. In the end, this event became something of a defining point in that career. He never became President, but his televised appeal to voters established him in the Senate until his death.
I’m sure there will be those who look at this film and claim it’s a new cover-up of an advantaged politician getting away with a great crime. There will be others who will think that the weakness we see in Kennedy’s personality is a slur on a great man. But instead the filmmakers chose to carefully stay in the middle of the road—which may well keep this movie from careening off a dangerous bridge.
Photos courtesy of Entertainment Studios