Directed by: John Curran
Premise: Based on true events. In 1969, United States Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is involved in a car accident that kills campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). In the days that follow, Kennedy and political elites attempt to keep the senator out of prison.
What Works: Chappaquiddick dramatizes the 1969 scandal and tells its story in a way that is dramatically compelling while also politically and morally provocative. This is a movie about responsibility and integrity and evasion of the former and the loss of the latter. Rather than a juicy work of exploitation, Chappaquiddick is a complex and heartbreaking film. The movie begins by contextualizing itself in the late 1960s. Bobby Kennedy was murdered just a year earlier following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the loss of both men hangs over Ted and his supporters. At that time, the Kennedy name was associated with hope and a leftwing ideal of American potential. Chappaquiddick suggests that this incident was the ultimate undoing of the Kennedy legacy. The hope that JFK and especially Bobby Kennedy represented is cheapened as Ted and his political allies use it to crassly cover up criminal negligence. This is a story about a man losing his integrity without realizing it and the way ambition and zero-sum political thinking corrupts our judgement. Chappaquiddick is not a partisan hit job. This is a complex moral tale and an indictment of partisanship that illuminates something poisonous in American politics and it is especially urgent for the contemporary moment. Chappaquiddick is led by Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and this may be Clarke’s best performance. Playing a Kennedy is tricky. The family had a particular voice and manner and a careless actor could end up coming across like Mayor Quimby in The Simpsons. Clarke soft pedals the imitation, incorporating enough of a New England inflection and using just enough makeup to suggest Kennedy while maintaining an organic performance. He plays the moral ambiguity to near perfection and his performance captures what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. Chappaquiddick also has surprising supporting performances by Ed Helms as Kennedy cousin and lawyer Joseph Gargan and Jim Gaffigan as United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Paul F. Markham. Neither of these actors are typically associated with drama but they both provide very good performances and Helms is particularly good as the moral center of the movie.
What Doesn’t: The Chappaquiddick scandal is one of the more unseemly incidents in recent political history and this film presents the event in fair and straightforward terms. But in this highly partisan time, Chappaquiddick may struggle to find an audience. It’s doubtful that leftwing viewers will want to hear what this film has to say about Ted Kennedy. The rightwing audience might take some satisfaction in seeing the legend of Ted Kennedy torn down—and this film certainly does that—but its subtleties may not play to viewers accustomed to the hysterical tone of Fox News. Chappaquiddick is a relevant and important work but audiences may not be prepared for what this film has to say.
Bottom Line: Chappaquiddick is a terrifically made work of drama that deserves serious consideration by audiences, critics, and cultural commentators. The filmmakers use the Chappaquiddick scandal to show us something ugly but true about politics and American culture that may not be easy for contemporary audiences to accept but is absolutely essential at this particular time.
Episode: #694 (April 15, 2018)