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Chappaquiddick (A Movie Review)

Updated: Sep 27, 2023



Starring Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols, Olivia Thirlby, Bruce Dern, Thomas Kee, Sarah Elizabeth Mitchell, John Fiore, Jason Mulcahy, Andria Blackman, Tamara Hickey, Lexie Roth, Victor Warren, Alison Wachtler, Susan Garibotto and Matthew Lawler.

Screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan.

Directed by John Curran.

Distributed by Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures. 105 minutes. Not Rated.

Screened at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Is it just, or even fair, to judge a person’s life based upon their single worst act?

Watching Chappaquiddick forces you to explore this question. Most people will agree that the late Senator Ted Kennedy did a lot of good in over 40 years of public service. However, a horrible accident in 1969 – which killed an innocent woman – always loomed like a shadow over his career. In fact, it undoubtedly cost him the Presidency.

Not to make it sound like he was the victim here. There was only one victim, Mary Jo Kopechne, and frankly she has always been somewhat overlooked in her own tragic story. She has become a name in history; not a real person with a life, passionate interests, a family, and people who loved her.

While there were some extenuating circumstances – Kennedy was still reeling from the killings of his three brothers (one in war, two to assassin’s bullets), his life was in free fall, he felt extreme pressure to live up to his brothers – two of the most beloved politicians in American history, and frankly he was probably drinking too much at the time – make no mistake, Ted Kennedy was responsible for her death, even if it was an accident. Kennedy made some colossal errors and lapses of judgment, to the point that his slow actions may have actively hindered the limited possibility of saving her life.

However, does all this make him a bad man? Or did this brief moral lapse firm up his determination to serving humanity?

The movie about this tragic event takes a commendably even-handed look at one of the most mysterious and tragic nights in American political history. It does not trade in salacious gossip. Commendably it does not make it seem like Kennedy and Kopechne were having an affair, as some of the more strident conspiracy theories have offered, though it does not completely rule that possibility out, either.

No one will ever know for sure what happened on that dark Massachusetts bridge in 1969, except for two people, and they are both dead.

Director John Curran acknowledged that fact to me before the film’s screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival. However, screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan based the film entirely on the testimonies of Kennedy and others involved in that fateful night. They did not want to traffic in rumors or innuendo. As an old TV cop used to say: Just the facts, ma’am. Or at least as many of the facts as are possible to glean from such a long-standing mystery.

Jason Clarke does quite a good job of inhabiting the Senator as a young man, a smart, but entitled man who was not above putting his career above what was right; an early example of the current political tug of war between truth and spin. Kate Mara is also memorable in a smallish-role as the tragic victim. Bruce Dern is harshly intimidating as Joseph, the stroke-afflicted patriarch of the Kennedy clan.

In the end, I would like to think that Chappaquiddick shows a good-but-very-flawed man before he grew into his full character. It is also a fascinating snapshot of a time when politics was much more innocent – though not necessarily completely cleaner – than it is today.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: October 25, 2017.


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