On July 18th, 1969, after a big party out on Chappaquiddick Island, Senator Edward Kennedy drove off a bridge without guardrails and into the water. His car was submerged, but Kennedy managed to escape the car. Mary Jo Kopechne — a former staffer for Kennedy’s brother, Bobby — did not. She died inside the car. Ted Kennedy did not report the incident to the authorities for another 10 hours (in fact, only after he notified the parents of Kopechne of her death).
John Curran’s Chappaquiddick kind-of sort-of tries to unravel the mystery of those ten hours and the aftermath of the Chappaquiddick incident, which derailed Ted Kennedy’s plans to run for President in 1972 and 1976 (he eventually did run in 1980, but lost in the Democratic primary). The problem with Curran’s Chappaquiddick is that it is too straight-forward. It basically retells the Kennedy-approved account of the incident: Kennedy is seen as a flawed-but-good man who bumbled the incident because of the pressures put on him by his family and the country to be successful after the deaths of his other three brothers.
Look: If I had too much to drink and drove my car off a bridge with a female passenger inside, I’m not sure what I would do in such a state of panic, but I know what I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t walk all the way back to the drunken party whence I came to get help from friends and, failing that, boat back to the mainland, put on a suit, call my father, go to sleep, wake up and have breakfast with friends like nothing had happened, and then report the incident 10 hours later via a written statement after the body of Mary Jo Kopechne had already been recovered.
Chappaquiddick also endeavors to explore how the Kennedy family dealt with the incident behind the scenes — they called in a bunch of powerful people who managed the media narrative and worked a deal with the prosecutor — but the entire movie creates a lot more questions than it answers. I mean, I didn’t know that much about Chappaquiddick before the movie, but I don’t feel like I know that much more about it afterward. There are a lot of holes, foremost among them: Why could Ted Kennedy escape the car and Kopechne couldn’t? Why were Kopechne and Kennedy out that night together (the movie suggests that Kennedy was simply trying to convince her to join his campaign)? And My God: 10 hours? Why?
The movie also fails to explore any of the other theories about the incident that go against the official narrative. There is a theory, for instance, suggesting that Kennedy was never in the car. There is another theory that Kennedy was having an affair with another politician’s wife and that they were in the car together but didn’t even know that Kopechne was inside — this account actually tracks better, because in this scenario, Kennedy was not trying to cover up a woman’s death but an illicit affair (Kennedy’s wife, who was not at the party, makes a brief appearance in the movie, angrily attending Kopechne’s funeral with Kennedy, though no mention is made that she was pregnant and miscarried soon after the funeral, nor is it clear why she’s angry).
(For the record, there is very little suggestion in alternate-theory circles that Kopechne and Kennedy were romantically involved, although the film — perhaps inadvertently — creates that impression by omission, and by the behavior of Kennedy’s wife.)
I will give Curran’s Chappaquiddick this much: Jason Clarke makes a believable Ted Kennedy; Ed Helms is a better dramatic actor than comedic one (although, his Boston accent is all over the place); and the movie is a fairly decent primer for people who previously knew little or nothing about Chappaquiddick. Moreover, the questions that it doesn’t answer may send viewers scrambling to the Internet afterward to find the “real story,” although the “real story” only seems to exists in the minds of the late Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne.
Indeed, after spending an hour and 45 minutes with Chappaquiddick, the only impression that viewers may be left with is that there’s a lot more to the story than what is presented.