Chappaquiddick is what happens when white male privilege is boosted by political clout and power. The film, based on a true-life incident, tells the tale of an event that took place on July 18 almost 50 years ago, in 1969, when Senator Ted Kennedy caused an accident that resulted in the death of a 28-year-old woman.
Mary Jo Kopechne died after Kennedy drove his vehicle into a tidal channel. Kennedy managed to swim out, but Kopechne drowned in the submerged vehicle.
It took more than 10 hours for Kennedy to report the crime, and he was ultimately charged with leaving the scene of a crash causing personal injury, a charge to which he pleaded guilty. He ended up receiving a two-month suspended sentence.
It’s also the incident that’s believed to have led to his decision not to run for US president, following in his brothers’ footsteps, in 1972 and 1976.
The film opens with an interview in which Kennedy, in July 1969, is questioned about standing in the shadow of his brothers, John and Robert Kennedy.
He plainly refuses to answer that question, which sets the tone in the film of how he will always live in the shadow of his brothers, regardless of his accomplishments.
John Clarke, who plays Ted Kennedy, gives a compelling performance. He’s charming at one point, an orator of note at another, completely guilt-ridden after the accident and then intent on self-preservation. As the drama of the incident unfolds, he sets up a war room in an attempt to save his image from the PR mess he has created.
The film displays so beautifully how power renders you above reproach, with Kennedy not even taking enough time to make up for causing Kopechne’s death.
Chappaquiddick tells the story we probably wouldn’t have heard, of Ted’s vulnerability and the breaking down of his relationships with friends. He is belittled and has to prove he has what it takes to turn things around.
But he also makes stupid decisions, like wearing a neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral. He also fails adequately to reach out to the grieving Kopechne family.
The clothing, sets and locations lend authenticity to the film. Bruce Dern, in his portrayal of patriarch Joseph P Kennedy, has no real lines; just a grunt here and there. But he portrays the disgust and disappointment of a father so well, you feel it.
By the end of the film, after rallying public support, Ted Kennedy asks the Massachusetts electorate whether he should stay in office or resign.
After getting favourable responses in messages sent to him, Kennedy announces that he will remain in the Senate and run for re-election the next year. He remained in the Senate for 40 years until his death in 2009.
It’s an honest portrayal of a series of events where it would have been much easier to just tell the Kennedy point of view, and that is what makes
Chappaquiddick worth seeing.
Chappaquiddick is in cinemas now.