Chappaquiddick: A Sober but Colorless Docudrama

Chappaquiddick (2017) recounts the tragic death of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne in this historical drama supporters of the late Senator Ted Kennedy don’t want you to see. Written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, and directed by John Curran, the film is competently handled but falls into the trap of “and then” storytelling, with only a halfhearted conflict between Ted Kennedy’s character and a funny but oddly out of place Ed Helms.

The year is 1969. Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is still mourning the loss of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, the second brother to fall to an assassin’s bullet. The country is preparing to fulfill his late brother President John F. Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon. He plans a party on Chappaquiddick Island for Robert’s former campaign staff, including Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). He is joined by Massachusetts US Attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and his cousin, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms).

Kennedy and Mary Jo drive off alone together, and although it’s implied there might be an affair brewing (Kennedy was married), it’s never shown. Kennedy, drunk, accidentally drives off a bridge. We see him lethargically return to the beach house where, despite protests by Markham and Gargan, he waits until morning to report the accident. Gargan, his family’s longtime “fixer,” is unable and unwilling to help Kennedy make this “problem” go away.

Kennedy returns to his family home, where he seeks help from his nightmarish and stroke-disabled father Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (Bruce Dern). Kennedy, Sr. summons a damage control team led by ruthless Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), who attempts to gain sympathy for Kennedy in the press. Joe Gargan urges him to resign, but Kennedy ultimately chooses to run for re-election. “Even Moses had personal flaws,” he argues, but Gargan retorts, “Moses didn’t leave a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.”

Chappaquiddick is based on the July 18, 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, in which Massachusetts-born Senator Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy drove his car off a bridge into Poucha Pond, resulting in the death of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended jail sentence. Although he spent the rest of his life in the U.S. Senate, many credit this horrible incident to dooming his presidential aspirations.

From what I’ve learned, the film is fairly accurate, or as accurate as can be given that Kennedy’s recollections are all they have to go on for several critical scenes. No one will ever know how Mary Jo died, because an autopsy wasn’t performed. The filmmakers chose the worst case scenario for maximum emotional impact. Additionally, Joe Kennedy is portrayed as filled with resentment and disappointment for his son, but his nurse’s testimony paints a more sympathetic picture.

Chappaquiddick shares some similarities with Christine (2016), a dramatization of reporter Christine Chubbuck’s 1974 on air suicide. Both character-driven historical drama films focus on the emotional suffering and struggle of their protagonists. Stylistically, both evoke a stark and quiet realism. However, Christine is the superior film because its down-to-earth characters offer more of an emotional connection with the audience. It’s difficult to sympathize with a privileged country club brat who used his power and influence to sweep a woman’s death under the rug.

Both audiences and critics praised Chappaquiddick. It made $17.4 million on a $13 million budget, and has an 81 percent critic and 69 percent audience favorability rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A solid supporting cast saved it. The conflict between Ted Kennedy and Joe Gargan gave life to a film otherwise as dull and listless as Jason Clarke’s performance. I wonder, however, whether including two comedians (Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan) was appropriate given the subject matter.

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