It’s the late 1960’s and the nation’s attention is focused on something amazing: A man is about to walk on the moon. As it turns out, the same weekend that Apollo 11 is hurtling towards the lunar surface, Senator Ted Kennedy and pals are hosting a party at a remote cabin on Chappaquiddick island, one of the many islands that make up the Martha’s Vineyard area of Southeastern Massachusetts.
After one drink too many, the married Senator (played by Jason Clarke) heads off in a car with attractive young Kennedy campaigner Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). He’s driving, but he can’t keep his eyes off her, and at one point ends up skidding to a stop at a fork in the road inches from a tree. A cop stops to ask if everything’s okay and Kennedy backs up and shoots down a dirt road; they’re not heading to the ferry to the main island, he’s looking for somewhere quiet and secluded. Though quite familiar with the island from years of family holidays in Martha’s Vineyard, he overshoots a turn and the car flips off a low bridge, landing upside-down in a shallow estuary.
Ted drags himself out of the car but Mary Jo is unresponsive and is in danger of drowning. Kennedy is a senator and youngest of a fabled family of wealth and power (his brother Jack was the US President who started the entire mission to the moon), though, so he runs back to the cabin and starts building an alibi.
While Mary Jo slowly drowns and dies.
If this were a fictional thriller, Chappaquiddick would end with the comeuppance, with the driver having his crime revealed and justice being served. But it’s not fiction and Kennedy rallies his family and their faithful retainers and concocts a story that makes Ted the victim, ignores Mary Jo’s death entirely, and manages to help Ted retain his position in Congress. It’s a great story to tell cinematically because it’s fascinating and shocking both, and the new movie Chappaquiddick tries earnestly to fill in the holes about what might have happened and what transpired.
Told in three acts, the film begins by bringing us back to 1969 and showing a party of older white men of power (a Senator, a District Attorney, etc) and the young women known as “the boiler room girls” from Bobby Kennedy’s campaign who are brought onto the island to help make the party, well, a party. The second part is the ill-fated drive, accident and Kennedy’s baffling and appalling lack of any attempt to rescue Kopechne from the submerged vehicle. Most of the film, however, focuses on spin management and it’s perhaps the most unsettling. It’s also wordy and slow, with very little action and a lot of dialog as rich people and their lawyers argue about how to manage the situation.
Never, not once, does anyone in the movie express any regret or sympathy for the dead woman, and even when Kennedy is shown breaking the news to Mary Jo’s parents, they’re shown as more star-struck that Teddy Kennedy is on the line than they are angry about the situation and loss of their girl.
Very well acted – in particular Clarke is entirely believable as the underdog Kennedy from the fabled family haunted by tragedy – the film is still an “art house movie” in that it’s slow, smart, thoughtful and as significant in what’s not said and done as it is for what does end up the focus on people’s actions. When Kennedy calls his Dad for advice on what to do, the Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) mumbles “alibi” and hangs up the phone.
I encourage anyone interested in politics or history to see this film and think about what happened in Chappaquiddick all those years ago. Do the rich have different rules of justice? How would the situation have been different if a young African-American man had been driving that fateful evening? Are we Americans really so gullible that we’ll swallow whatever story people in power share, even if questions are left unanswered? And how has that changed today in our era of #MeToo revelations and #FakeNews manipulation?
Not appropriate for the youngest in the family, Chappaquiddick is a compelling drama for teens and older that, though slow at moments, should open up an important discussion about power, justice and money. A conversation that we should all be having as we move into the latter half of 2018.