In Chappaquiddick, director John Curran (The Killer Inside Me) churns out a surfeit of complex, crucial questions. These questions run the gamut from the political to the moral to the psychological and beyond. The film does not definitively answer any of these questions, but rather portrays varying versions of events and asks audiences to draw their own conclusions.
More than anything else, Chappaquiddick is an examination of how Ted Kennedy’s mind worked. The undisputed facts of the Chappaquiddick incident are that Ted Kennedy and a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne were in Kennedy’s car together when, around 1:00 in the morning, the car went off a bridge and into a pond. Kennedy swam to shore and survived while Kopechne died in the submerged car. Kennedy left the scene and only reported the accident nine hours later. In Chappaquiddick, Kennedy vacillates between telling the authorities and the public the truth about what happened and telling them a version of events concocted by strategists and advisers to minimize the damage to Kennedy’s reputation. This effort takes on a unique importance because Kennedy was expected to run for President in 1972 and because he was the last living Kennedy son.
Initially, Kennedy seems intent on disavowing his participation in the accident. However, his close associate Joe Gargan, stirringly portrayed by Ed Helms, persuades him to tell the truth about what happens. Kennedy submits a written statement to the local police detailing the accident. This statement is soon released to the media but when Teddy’s domineering father asserts control over the whole operation, an alternate version of events is put forward through Kennedy by a gang of cynical, hardened lawyers and publicists. Teddy goes along with this effort to maintain his standing among his constituents - Kennedy had been a sitting senator from Massachusetts since 1962. Ultimately, Chappaquiddick paints Ted Kennedy as a man lacking empathy and too cowardly to preserve his integrity by adhering to a moral code.
Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) is startlingly good as Teddy Kennedy. Every internal battle Kennedy fights is wrought into flesh by Clarke as we watch his face twist and writhe with pride in some moments and shame in others. Ed Helms (The Hangover) and Jim Gaffigan (Chuck) both play against type in roles that require no comedic talent whatsoever, and both deliver outstanding performances. The aforementioned domineering father is played masterfully by Bruce Dern (Nebraska).
Chappaquiddick excels in continuously building suspense as we wait to discover which course Kennedy will take in facing the consequences of the accident. Of course, there is also the tension of trying to discern the facts of the accident as the film shows various versions of the event in Rashomon fashion.
Of course, with Senator Kennedy having passed away in 2009, no one will ever know what really happened in that car, in that pond, or on the shore afterwards. In fact, theorizing about the accident and its immediate aftermath has become a cottage industry. Was Kennedy driving or was it Kopechne? Was one of them drinking? Or both? Or Neither? How did Kennedy get out of the car while Kopechne did not? Was either of them wearing a seatbelt? And most importantly, did Kennedy try to rescue Kopechne or did he swim to shore and watch as she struggled and drowned?
In its day, the Chappaquiddick incident was a huge scandal and a media sensation. It derailed Kennedy’s presidential ambitions for 1972 and 1976 and though he would run in 1980, Chappaquiddick would continue to haunt him, and he failed to secure the democratic nomination. Kennedy never did live down the incident and many people held him responsible in one way or another for Mary Jo Kopechne’s death for the rest of his life. Whether those people were right or wrong, we’ll never know, but Chappaquiddick, the film, is a more than worthy attempt to find meaning in the tragedy and get to the root of the controversy that loomed so large in the life of a man who ultimately was considered “The Lion of the Senate” but never could fulfill the ambitions so many had for him.