Chappaquiddick takes us back to a simpler time in American politics when a potential manslaughter case ignited a nation-wide controversy. Director John Curran’s political drama, Chappaquiddick, takes place in 1969 and spotlights the highly-publicized Kennedy family scandal. Comprised of sex, lies, and potential coverups, the Chappaquiddick story helped tarnish the Kennedy family’s golden image. Although the event has tabloid story potential, Curran takes the high road and presents a sober take on what may have happened on that infamous night.
It’s 1969, the Kennedy family are practically American royalty, and Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is the family’s last remaining son. Like his brothers, Ted is a politician. Despite achieving the lofty position of senator, Ted hasn’t reached the same level of success as his brothers. If the Kennedy brothers are The Beatles, Ted’s father views him as Ringo – and Ted knows it. Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s script paints Ted as a tragic figure. Forced into politics by his domineering father Joe (Bruce Dern), we watch Ted struggle to carry on the Kennedy family legacy.
Ted and a group of married men head off to Martha’s Vineyard for a weekend getaway without their wives. They meet up with ‘the boiler-room girls,’ a group of young, attractive, and unmarried former campaign aids. It’s here where fact and fiction grow murky. After a late night of boozing, Ted steps out with one of the ladies, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). While out driving, Ted veers off a bridge and crashes his car into the water below. He escapes the car, but Mary Jo remains trapped inside and dies. Ted doesn’t notify the police until the next day (roughly ten hours later), damaging his credibility and setting the stage for decades of conspiracy theories.
The Chappaquiddick story is packed with all the right elements for a tense political thriller but doesn’t play out like one would expect. Instead of an edge-of-your-seat watch, Chappaquiddick plods along devoid of tension and suspense. Curran chooses a subdued storytelling approach, slowly setting the stage for the tragic events and their repercussions. His film functions like a political essay, establishing key players and the inciting incident before drawing attention to major flaws in the American justice system. The film presents enough who’s, what’s, where’s, and whys to satisfy inquisitive minds but the storytelling feels slack. But, the film is by no means boring either. It’s an engaging 100-minutes story filled with just enough conflict to hold your attention until the credits roll.
Chappaquiddick calls out America’s two-tiered justice system without resorting to finger-wagging. We witness how a man of wealth, privilege, and power experiences a system that doesn’t exist for the rest of us. Curran delivers numerous scenes comprised of old white men with no moral compass, all focused on bending the law in their favour. Right and wrong don’t factor into their worldview, only what will or won’t lead to a conviction. Even if you’re not familiar with the story, odds are that you already know how it ends.
One character with some semblance of a conscience is Ted’s cousin and lifelong confidant, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms). Joe doesn’t want any part of the mess that Ted drags him into. As events unfold, all the lies and misdirection’s take a physical toll on Joe. You can see beads of flop sweat forming every time Joe agrees to Ted’s “alternative facts.” Helms’ convincing performance offers more proof that Hollywood should cast comedic actors in dramatic roles. And to drive the point home, the movie also features Jim Gaffigan as political bigwig, Paul Markham. Gaffigan also delivers a decent performance but has far less to do.
Clarke has a tough job as the film’s linchpin. He’s tasked with portraying a man side-stepping accountability for a woman’s death (and the manslaughter charge that comes with it) while not coming off like a villain. Clarke excels in the lead role but doesn’t elevate the material to the point where it stays with you after the film ends. You can feel the storm of conflicting emotions roaring through Ted’s mind after the crash, even as he’s in a shell-shocked state. There’s a growing sense of liberation to go along with Ted’s guilt and regret. Ted doubts himself and his ability to live up to his family’s name, and Mary Jo’s death could be his exit strategy.
Chappaquiddick makes for an inoffensive watch regardless of whether you’re a liberal or a conservative. Decent performances, a fine score, and an infamous scandal all add up to a solid but unspectacular picture. But, given our current political climate, Chappaquiddick takes on greater relevance as a work of art.
It’s impossible to watch Chappaquiddick and not think about the parade of scandals attached to the current White House administration. The movie digs up the past to say something about the present. Nothing in the film stands out as much as grainy pre-credits footage of actual 1969 voters. When asked where they stood on Ted Kennedy, voters still offered their unwavering support. The footage comments on our willingness to deny facts and compromise our values to stick up for those on our side of the political divide. It’s also a reminder that fierce political tribalism reigned long before Facebook ads, fake news, and Cambridge Analytica began sowing discord.
- Release Date: 4/06/2018