Arguably still a well-loved figure amongst Democrats, Ted Kennedy, and the mystery surrounding the infamous “Chappaquiddick incident”, takes centre stage in John Curran’s Chappaquiddick. Taking a few shots at Kennedy (Jason Clarke, in a strong performance), the film places a critical eye on the mystique that surrounded the Kennedy family, and how the staff banded together to save him from a situation that should’ve cost him both his career and his freedom.
The incident itself raised several questions, many of which aren’t necessarily concretely answered here, but the film appears to enjoy the vagueness of addressing the issues that came with this rather bizarre accident. Rumours of an affair between Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara, in a brief but powerful turn), a former RFK campaign worker, ran rampant, but the film never clearly states if this was the case, nor does it allude to whether or not Kennedy was drunk when he got behind the wheel of his car and took her for a suspicious late night drive. The main issue at hand here refers to Kennedy’s behaviour following the accident that saw him drive his car off a bridge and into the water below; he fled the scene shortly after, further abandoning once more before reporting when he returned with his cousin (an against-type Ed Helms) and lawyer (Jim Gaffigan).
How Kennedy survived the crash, or correctly more how he exited the car and was unable to save Kopechne, is one the main issues Chappaquiddick adheres to, with Kennedy himself unable to explain how he found himself outside the vehicle leaving his panicked passenger inside to suffocate and drown; this also posing serious concern over Kennedy’s actions as many believed had he reported the incident, she would have been saved. The film never excuses his behaviour – he’s often portrayed as quite a pathetic character – but he (more-or-less) owns up to his wrong-doing, something that ultimately worked in his favour in keeping his public image positive.
As pathetic as he is, his weakness is understandable as the film often lets us in on his mindset and how he viewed himself compared to his brothers: JFK the charismatic one, RFK the intelligent one, and Ted…the “other” sibling; Bruce Dern’s cameo as his ailing, stroke-ridden father Joe drives this home in a series of moments that highlight the disappointment he was often viewed as.
Whilst perhaps too low-key a title to garner major traction, Chappaquiddick is nonetheless an intriguing-enough drama detailing a rather daring subject. It may not satisfy in terms of addressing the controversy in a precise manner – ultimately Kennedy’s word is all the incident had on record – but given the information at hand, Curran has constructed a fine feature that highlights the unjust favouritism those in power are able to muster despite their criminal actions.