The first time we really see Ted Kennedy in John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick” is during a party at one of his family’s Martha’s Vineyard properties. Face ruddy with Scotch, he convenes his carefully curated crowd of babes and stooges, and gives them a lecture on the importance of family. Notably absent: His actual family, including his pregnant wife, away on “doctor’s orders.”
It’s a relevatory moment, one that establishes that we’re looking at a man unburdened by shame or moral duty. “Chappaquiddick” does take a scornful look at one of the most notable figures of 20th century American politics, but it’s something more, an examination of the way powerful men insulate themselves from consequences with the help of others.
The film is perhaps the first Hollywood production to dispense with the Camelot fetishism of the Kennedy family. Made safely after the family’s power in DC has faded to nearly nothing, it’s nonetheless a blistering indictment of not just the family, but those who shrugged at their sins. The degree to which the media and historians have run interference for the Kennedy family is astonishing, and better late than never when it comes to getting the truth out.
Kennedy, as played by Jason Clarke, looks the picture of unearned entitlement. An oafish buffoon, this was a man who cheated his way through Harvard, who pushed open borders while walling himself up in secure compounds, who pushed socialized medicine but only saw the finest physicians capitalism could produce when his own health declined, who supported busing but sent his own children to elite private schools, who touted the virtues of family to his side tail while his lobotomized sister rotted in a mental institution out of the public eye. Say what you will about his legislative achievements, but the man was a nasty, contemptible piece of work by any morally sane measure. The movie doesn’t even touch on most of this, but its appraisal of his behavior during a week in 1969 is blistering.
The film charitably absolves Kennedy of an affair with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), the 28-year-old Kennedy groupie who was Ted’s passenger when he drunkenly drove his luxury Oldsmobile off a bridge. It’s even more charitable in suggesting that Kennedy did make a slight effort to rescue Kopechne from the submerged vehicle, but that’s where the script’s generosity ends.
What follows is a masterclass in narcissistic entitlement. Kennedy, sopping wet and wallowing in self-pity as Kopechne was suffocating nearby, sulks back to his cottage, where he enlists the aid of Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Massachusetts AG Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan). “I’m not going to be President,” he declares, foregoing the pretense of concern for the dead. Soon after, he’s sleeping peacefully in bed, and goes out for brunch before begrudgingly stomping over to the police station to report the accident. By that point, Kopechne’s corpse had been retrieved and the scandal had officially begun.
The script, by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, could have just as easily been a sprawling political comedy in the vein of Armando Iannucci (“The Death of Stalin”), but it remains stoic as the absurdity of the attempted cover-up balloons to comic proportions. A legion of Kennedy lackeys, including the vile Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), converge at the mansion of patriarch Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern), now a withered, demonic octogenarian in a wheelchair. When Ted blubbers at the old codger for advice, all he can do is say, “alibi.” Subtle this ain’t, but neither was the corruption at play.
Their PR machine goes into overdrive. Blessed with the moon landing (notably a part of Ted’s brother’s legacy) sucking the oxygen out of the media coverage, Kennedy and his team go to work at burying the problem, literally, as they want to get Kopechne in the ground before an autopsy incriminates the senator. They release statements that wax poetic about the trials endured by the Kennedy family, regarding the incident not as malfeasance, but a cosmic blow aimed at a noble clan (the movie is guilty of fudging the media’s role by depicting it as adversarial, when in reality the press dutifully protected the Camelot mythos).
Ted, clearly lacking a serious injury, fakes a concussion, only for his team to be caught in a lie about him being sedated (concussion victims aren’t prescribed sedatives). He attends Kopechne’s funeral in a neck brace, though that doesn’t stop him from craning his head around in full view of hundreds of people. In private, Kennedy suffers from occasional, seconds-long pangs of conscience until he comes to his senses and remembers that he’s American royalty, and royalty doesn’t do sincere contrition.
The film’s sobriety doesn’t always work in its favor, as the plot occasionally fails to generate the dramatic kick that it could. The narrative is fascinating but aloof, usually detached from the people depicted. Covering the day before the accident and ending with Kennedy’s televised, deeply insincere explanation, the plot explores the worst kind of corruption, that of public servants who only wield their power and influence to advance their own interests. The film thrives on the few occasions it really embraces the luridness of the situation, such as when Kopechne says the Lord’s Prayer as the Oldsmobile fills with water, or when Kennedy’s men discuss what medical condition they’ll diagnose him with as an actual physician meekly protests that no examination has been conducted.
But the film stumbles when it reaches for sentiment, particularly in a scene where the 37-year-old Kennedy mawkishly tells his father that, “I don’t know who I am,” a strained sentiment that certainly doesn’t resemble anything Kennedy ever said in any context. Competent but undistinguished set design and cinematography keep the images from popping, leaving it to fine performances and a good script to elevate it above that of a pricey cable movie. Clarke, an Australian, aptly embodies Kennedy, laying bear the man’s callow self-absorption without rendering his own judgment.
The film saves its most searing indictments for Kennedy’s stooges, and, to an extent, us. Kennedy wasn’t smart or talented enough to get away with killing Kopechne on his own. With loads of help, including a lapdog police chief, a politically-savvy Democratic prosecutor, and even Kopechne’s fellow Kennedy groupies, Ted avoided a single second in handcuffs.
But in a tangible sense, it’s the voter, represented here with actual newsreel footage taken of Kennedy’s constituents, that gave him true absolution, rewarding him with rubber-stamped Senate terms and even serious consideration as a Presidential candidate. From Chappaquidick to Monicagate to Grabbergate, Americans have made a habit of ignoring their candidate’s personal indiscretions, even when they go beyond immoral and into criminal. Real privilege isn’t white, but political, and nearly everyone is a villain.