Chappaquiddick, an ambitious film by John Curran, is an agitating watch if you’re aware of its historical context and/or have read Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, Black Water. The movie is a decent nostalgia piece if you’re uninitiated or only vaguely familiar with the Chappaquiddick incident. But overall, it's a confounding movie in so many ways. Despite its star-studded cast, the film flopped pretty hard at the box office. Its $34 million budget seems to have been spent entirely on kickbacks or craft services. And the poor woman that loses her life in the incident feels like an absolute footnote in the story. All that derision aside, the film does manage to provide an interesting glimpse into legacy families, American politics, and the influence of power.
Chappaquiddick draws much of its story from the Kennedy family legacy, but focuses on one of its chronicles and progeny in particular: The Chappaquiddick incident and Edward “Ted” Kennedy (Jason Clarke). “The incident” refers to an accident that takes place on July 18, 1969. At some point that night, “Ted” drives his car off a narrow bridge into a pond with a woman named Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) riding shotgun. The car lands upside down in the water, and Kennedy manages to escape. However, Mary Jo does not. Chappaquiddick portrays the incident with exceptional historical accuracy, but clearly offers a cinematic interpretation that is determined to sensationalize the effects the tragedy has on “Ted” rather than diving into the big-picture complexities of the calamity.
To that point, Chappaquiddick feels like a weak mea culpa by “The Senator.” It takes the character about 95 minutes to accept responsibility for the decisions that lead to Mary Jo Kopechne’s death, and he does so in the most sterile way possible. Moreover, the film seems to defend those decisions. This man essentially kills a woman and, according to the film, winds up being the victim: His dad doesn’t love him. The shadows of his brothers. The machinations of political office controlling every aspect of his life. (But did you die?!) *Leslie Chow voice* It’s a script full of cop-outs that insult those of us who find themselves at the mercy of privilege. Chappaquiddick really winds up being a grotesque exercise in Kennedy worship.
That is not to say that there aren’t moments of excellence in the film. The set design, wardrobe choices, and acting are superb. The staging and camerawork in Chappaquiddick transport you to the summer of ‘69 with polyester fabrics, anachronistic payphones, and big-bodied Chryslers that look like pristine relics from a bygone era. Kate Mara shines (in the 25 minutes of screentime that she gets). Jason Clarke and his prosthetic teeth give an earnest performance that almost convince you to sympathize with “The Senator.” And Ed Helms really comes through as the sole source of humanity in the film. Ultimately, the best part of Chappaquiddick is its dedication to the verifiable truth even if it does seem to glorify the professional journey of Edward Kennedy.
As an aside, there is a podcast featuring the screenwriters of Chappaquiddick that speaks to the project’s intention called Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know: “What was the Chappaquiddick Incident.” In it, the writers, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, give a very thoughtful and impressive interview about the making of the film that’s fascinating. They lay out their research strategy and dissect the minutiae of the event in a way that’s incredibly engaging. They also manage to confuse the hell out of you because the podcast operates under the same facts as the movie, but is exponentially more critical of “Ted” Kennedy’s decision making than the movie is. Why they didn’t bring the podcast’s energy to the film is totally flabbergasting.
I usually refuse to write about movies that I don’t effusively like because I’m just not a fan of producing negative energy. However, Chappaquiddick serendipitously falls into a sweet spot for me at the moment. I’m not providing any press for any large studio production companies because of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes *insert virtue signal*, and I happen to be very familiar with Joyce Carol Oates’ (competing) interpretation of the Chappaquiddick incident. All that makes Chappaquiddick an interesting movie for me to parse through. Additionally, it deserves a viewing because it sheds light on a series of events that deserve scrutiny. (Shout out to women like Chandra Levy.) Scrutiny that hopefully prevents incidents like the one that happened in Chappaquiddick from ever happening again.
Chappaquiddick is currently streaming on STARZ and available for purchase on most major platforms.