A new movie explores: What really happened at Chappaquiddick?

Andria Blackman stars as Joan Kennedy and Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy in "Chappaquiddick." Photo Credit: Claire Folger / Entertainment Studios 

If you are under, say, 50 years of age, “Chappaquiddick” might suggest “Jumanji” or “Ratatouille”—a movie title that is hard to say, hard to spell, and what the heck does it mean anyway? For those who know, or perhaps have real-time memories, the word “Chappaquiddick” will evoke nothing short of tragedy, the quasi-implosion of a political dynasty and a scandal of astronomical proportions. Not to mention power, corruption and the obscene extremes of American class privilege.


It is these last few qualities that are the focus of “Chappaquiddick,” its director John Curran and, especially, the film’s relatively inexperienced young screenwriters, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. Curran is just old enough to remember July 18, 1969, the day Edward M. Kennedy drove his car off the bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. Taylor and Logan are not, and that is a critical point: Kennedy, at the time the senior senator from Massachusetts, was the brother of an assassinated president and an assassinated presidential candidate; his family, wracked by tragedy, occupied a now-unthinkable place in the American imagination. Kennedy may have been culpable in the drowning death of his lone passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old former campaign worker for his brother, Bobby. But he was the beneficiary of significant national sympathy. Never mind being the heir to an enormously powerful political machine.

The word “Chappaquiddick” will evoke nothing short of tragedy, the quasi-implosion of a political dynasty and a scandal of astronomical proportions.

Allen and Logan are immune to all that, and it is their portrayal of Kennedy-era power politics that attracts and repels, and makes the film more than a morbid rehash of tawdry scandal. Jason Clarke, the Australian actor (“Mudbound,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) is a fleshy, entitled and very convincing Teddy, who is accustomed to having people to pick up after him, notably his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms). On Martha’s Vineyard for the annual Edgartown Regatta (which Teddy manages to lose through pure pigheadedness), he is also quite preoccupied with a party being held on Friday night. As it happens, it is also the weekend of the Armstrong-Aldrin-Collins moon landing, which turns out to be a blessing for Ted. (“It would take nothing short of men walking on the moon to knock this off the front page,” someone later says. “Looks like Ted’s big brother arranged for just that.”)

Coming to that party are the “boiler room girls,” the female volunteers on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Kopechne had been on that team. Kennedy obviously has his eye on her.

“Chappaquiddick” treads carefully on several fronts. Kopechne, given a likable, sober portrayal by Kate Mara, is ever-leery about Ted; she knows he is not his brother Bobby, that he is married to the then-pregnant Joan and that every other word out of his mouth is either self-serving or a lie. That she gets in the car with him that night is a little out of character. But, of course, she did. There is no suggestion, however, that an affair was going on. Or that Kennedy was drunk at the time of the mishap.

Kate Mara stars as Mary Jo Kopechne in "Chappaquiddick." Photo Credit: Claire Folger / Entertainment Studios

At the same time, no one comes off particularly well in “Chappaquiddick,” save for Mary Jo and her fellow “boiler girl” Rachel Schiff (a terrific Olivia Thirlby). The police are either stupid or corrupt. The media is more than manageable. The people of Massachusetts are simply besotted by Kennedys.

But the portrait of Teddy himself is poisonous. In the wake of the crash, he escapes the overturned car and swims to shore—as Kennedy in fact did—and then waits almost 10 hours to notify the authorities. It was theorized later that Kopechne might have lasted as long as two hours after being submerged, in an oxygen bubble inside the black Oldsmobile. The treatment of this in “Chappaquiddick” is not just horrifying, but structured to provide Kennedy the least benefit of any doubt.

Returning to his inn, Teddy takes a bath, during which he seems to envision Mary Jo trying to get out of the car, trying to survive on that little bit of air. Or is that what is happening? The filmmakers have it both ways. If Teddy is merely imagining what she might have gone through, his ability to go to sleep after his bath suggests he is a sociopath. If the vision is “real”—if what we are seeing is a dramatization of what is actually happening in real time, if she is really still in the car, struggling as he goes to sleep—his culpability is that much greater. “I could have gotten her out of there in 25 minutes,” a rescue diver says later, as the body’s being recovered. “But no one called.”

As awful as the death of Mary Jo Kopechne was—her parents, who gave the Kennedy family very little trouble, are treated dismissively—it is the aftermath that fascinates. Calling his father about the accident, Teddy gets a one-word, croaked response from the wheelchair-bound, stroke-disabled Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.: “Alibi!” At his father’s house not too long after, Teddy is confronted not just by Dad (Bruce Dern) but a roomful of the country’s top fixers and politicos, including onetime J.F.K. speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols) and Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), then president of the World Bank. (There were other luminous operators in the room, but they go unidentified.)

They see the scope of the problem; Ted does not. They suggest ingenious ways out of it; Ted has, or will, sabotage himself at every turn. It is a tragicomic scenario—the scion of an epic political dynasty incapable of taking advice, of relinquishing control of the situation to those with more wisdom and experience, or of getting his ego out of his own way. Any comparisons to the current political landscape are left to the viewer. But they are certainly there to be made.

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JR Cosgrove
2 years 2 months ago

Kennedy may have been culpable in the drowning death of his lone passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne


He drove the car off the bridge and left her there to die while he worried about himself.

From a another review which seems more accurate

Nearly 50 years after Senator Ted Kennedy left a young woman to die in a shallow pond — and America went on to reward him with a lifelong career in the US Senate — we are finally beginning to reckon with the Kennedy myth.

But only just.

The new film “Chappaquiddick” is, to date, the most brutal and honest account of what happened that night. But it’s also something else: an indictment of our collective hero worship at the altar of Brand Kennedy, which bred so much corrosive entitlement that surviving brother Ted, the family beta male, went home to sleep it off after leaving a loyal young staffer to die alone.

Alfred Chavez
2 years 1 month ago

I thought maybe God had written this comment. Alas, not so...not so. I do trust He will decide whether Kennedy was "culpable" or not. So far as I know, He doesn't ask for our opinion. So "may" be culpable is entirely correct....and Christian. Granted, the whole episode doesn't look good for the young Teddy....but you know what they say about "looks."

JR Cosgrove
2 years 1 month ago

I think you should check the timeline. He left a young woman in a submerged car and did not report it. She lived for a couple hours and could have been easily saved. I don't think this is disputed.

Make your own judgment..

Can you imagine any Republican doing this and then running for the senate and the presidency. Only a Democrat could do this.

Mike Theman
2 years 2 months ago

Geez, John, could you at least try to hide your belief that you still supported Kennedy in spite of what was clearly an evil act. He WAS culpable and what he thought afterwards does not make him any less culpable. For all intents and purposes, he killed Kopechne. That leftists continued to support the guy, even in a Presidential election, and that people like you dance around the fact of what he did is a testament to how screwed up this country is. And you're the ones trying to crucify Trump for alleged, yes alleged, consensual sexual acts. Shame on you and your ilk.

Robert Lewis
2 years 1 month ago

You undermine your indictment of Ted Kennedy, by bringing up the word "leftist." Can't people across the political spectrum agree that, during his very long career, Ted Kennedy did some good and some terrible things? I'm disgusted with the political polarization going on in both this country and in the American Catholic Church, and I'm glad that I'm soon be an expatriate again. The atmosphere in American political and religious culture and in the decadent and degenerate society in general is absolutely poisonous.

Ellen B
2 years 1 month ago

People across the political spectrum were disgusted with Ted Kennedy but that just doesn't work for you does it? The fact is, he never was able to get the nomination for president because of Chappaquiddick. He lost the nomination to an unpopular President, Jimmy Carter. But never mind actual facts. (And as long as you brought it up is it easy to get payoffs for "alleged" consensual sexual acts?)

James Haraldson
2 years 1 month ago

Of course it's easy to obtain shakedown payoffs for "alleged" consensual sexual acts from a prominent figure. What culture do you live in? Your history is also very faulty. Very few on the political left were disgusted with Ted Kennedy at the time. But then, to respond to the prior comment as well, leftism is predicated on the notion that objective morality does not exist and society should only be only governed by the pragmatic needs of elitist dominated government.

Christopher Lochner
2 years 2 months ago

Pity that there is almost a programmed desire to admire bad people of great power as opposed to good people of little if any power..... And so the world turns.

Baron Corvo
2 years 1 month ago

This garbage is merely the latest in the nation's second most popular game...finding fault with the dirty Kennedy Family...which is only second to baseball in the number of drooling fans that follow and cheer it along.
And, of course the silly editors at this rag have to fall for publishing populist dreck like this, since they have this silly blog to fill with garbage they think reaches the Jesuits' level in 'broad-mindedness.'

2 years 1 month ago

It's funny. Democrats were against water boarding when Bush did it to terrorists, but not when Teddy Kennedy did it to MaryJo Kopechne.

2 years 1 month ago

I found the movie compellingly dramatic. It showed moral ambiguity and personal duplicity in the person of Teddy to make him more human, understandable and cowardly. But a few remaining questions linger: (1) why could Kennedy escape from the wrecked car but Kopechne could not? (2) why didn't Kennedy immediately phone police from the nearest house? Was he really that confused? Doesn't water "sober" one up? (3) Did Joe Gargan, the cousin, in fact, quit the Kennedy Brand after this incident? Overall, I give the movie an B+ or A-. I also found the reviewer in this article unusually sympathetic to the Kennedy Brand. Mike Lydon

2 years 1 month ago

America readers and commenters may find this piece by Senator Kennedy's biographer of interest.

Vince Killoran
2 years 1 month ago

The Old Man croaking out "Alibi"?! It never happened. He suffered a stroke in '62 and lost all power to speak by the mid-'60s. Alt-facts won't cut it.


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