“Chappaquiddick” is a good film that humanizes a tragedy and somehow balances privilege and commonality. It is not cavalier with the facts, nor is it overly judgmental. The opening picture of the Kennedy family sets the stage for our understanding of familiar expectations and personal identity psychology. The tragic drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne is not as illuminated as it is seen as a reminder of the moral underpinnings of the soul.
Actor Jason Clarke plays Senator Edward Kennedy and Kate Mara portrays Mary Jo, the idealistic staffer of his brother Bobby. The “boiler room girls” are invited to the traditional Martha’s Vineyard end-of-campaign-cabin party. Drinking plays a big part and a wrong swerve ends with Kennedy and Kopechne submerged upside-down in Poucha Pond. Kopechne does not survive. Anyone of voting age in the seventies remembers the scandal. For those younger, the history is as dramatic and tragic as Arthur Miller’s “ Death of a Salesman”. Truths are scrambled and emotions of guilt and identity roil.
While screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan point to privilege in the film as an essential thrust, the conflict becomes more of one of conscience and identity, the common man’s ride, too.
Clarke does an admirable job in showing Kennedy’s self-deluding calm as he tries to shift reality. Clarke’s hairline and eyes resemble Ted Kennedy’s, but I wish make-up artists would have used prosthetics to widen his jaw, like they did for Gary Oldham in the award-winning “The Darkest Hour”. Jason Clarke’s Bostonian accent is good and not overdone.
The major dramatic conflict centers on cousin, Joe Gargan ( Ed Helms), who pushes the Senator toward his conscience ;and, the elderly patriarch Joseph Kennedy ( Bruce Dern), who counsels with the gruff and amoral croak, “alibi”.
It is this Kennedy that loses the most stature in “ Chappaquiddick”. Even aged and stroke-damaged, this patriarch’s callous and high-powered “ the end justifies the means” philosophy does not support the family’s interest, but his own. He looks bad, and we wonder, “ Where is his wife, Rose?”
Ted’s father’s admonition of Ted in being able to choose his own life path was chilling: “ Lead a serious life or a non-serious one. You can choose, but I won’t have much time for you if you choose the latter.” We can understand why Edward Kennedy wished to report that he swam back to the mainland rather than rowed back with his two friends.
The scenes where the Senator seems aghast that having a valid driver’s license is important points to privileged naiveté. The scene where Ted attempts to fault his cohorts for not reporting the accident are gasp worthy, yet privilege has its down side, too. The pressure of “living in the long shadows” of his brothers is palpable in the Roger Mudd interview scene.
The father-son tension is extreme. The need for his father’s approval intense. Ted’s own small son’s rhetorical question, “ Uncle Jack can do anything, can’t he Dad!” was heart piercing.
Director John Curran builds the film’s tension by letting Clarke indulge in the slow pull and release of a man conflicted. Service to self, family, and God are strong currents that can rip.
I had forgotten that the Apollo landing and Neil Armstrong’s moon walk shared the 1969 headlines with the infamous Edgartown one. Seeing Ted’s buddies, Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, stripe to their skivvies, jump into the dark water and try to open the submerged car’s doors is reminiscent of a teenage nightmare. When cousin Joe says, “ Call your mom. Don’t let her find out about another tragedy in the news,” we wonder how old these men are.
Too late to be rescued, Mary Jo is seen mouthing the “ Our Father “ in three inches of trapped air in the Kennedy black 1967 Olds. This flashback is effective and haunting.
The high-powered lawyer team confiring and developing a public relations story is both infuriating and prescient. The logic, loyalty, and humor are cynically wrapped in a three-minute session at Hyannis. Wife Joan attends Mary Jo’s funeral with Ted, while Ted dons an unneeded neck brace. The theatrics aside, the fact is made that if Mr. and Mrs. Kopechne do not blame Ted, then neither should America.
The final boyhood bedroom scene with father and son is for the stage, and I think a tad over the top. I feel the same about the face slap episode. A father taunting a son with “ you will never be great” is never effective or pretty. Ted’s response that his brothers were great because of who they were, not because of who you are seems like simplistic overkill.
Joe Gargan died at 87 a few months ago, estranged from the Kennedys. Though the film shows some hints of jealousy when it comes to his cousin Ted, it is Joe Gargan’s moral strength that shines in this film. Helms is great as the guide, who is ultimately disappointed by Ted’s slow acceptance of responsibility. Gargan’s outrage is shown in the lines, “ we all have flaws. Moses had flaws, a temper, but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.” Like Willy Loman’s friend and neighbor Charley , he does his best to pay needful attention. Edward Kennedy was a lion in the Senate, but he is made more human by being seen as an Arthur Miller mesh of Willy, Biff, and Happy: deluded, flawed, and longing to escape.