GRIPPING “CHAPPAQUIDDICK” DRAMA; TCM FILM FESTIVAL PREVIEW
A Film Review by Tim Riley
CHAPPAQUIDDICK (Rated PG-13) Partisans of Richard Nixon favored the bumper-sticker slogan “Nobody Died at Watergate,” referring to the death of a female staffer when Senator Ted Kennedy plunged a vehicle in which they were traveling into a shallow pond on Chappaquiddick Island. But President Nixon’s political career came to an end, while the Senator served another forty years in the upper chamber of Congress, even though his presidential aspirations disintegrated that fateful night, a point made abundantly clear in the new movie “Chappaquiddick.”
To capture the look of the Massachusetts solon, it falls to Australia native Jason Clarke to portray Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara takes the role of former Bobby Kennedy staffer Mary Jo Kopechne, the fatal victim on a July night in 1969. “Chappaquiddick” recounts the night of a party that was a gathering of Robert F. Kennedy campaign workers, including the women who were affectionately known as “The Boiler Room Girls,” of which Kopechne was a devoted member.
Screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan assembled the script to tell the story by going back to the 1970 Edgartown’s court inquest, after which the Senator was given a two-month suspended jail sentence. Controversy followed the incident at Chappaquiddick, which was overshadowed in the news at the time by the Moon landing, to the extent that there was no end to conspiracy theories or even insinuations of an affair between Ted and Mary Jo. The writers have said that they “pulled from objective facts to lay the groundwork – no insinuation, no innuendo, but the real truth.” While the film is unflattering to Kennedy, it doesn’t allege that the Senator was driving drunk or that sexual advances were made.
But there is plenty of things happening here that cast a very bad light for the last remaining Kennedy brother. For one, he swam back to Edgartown for the night without reporting the accident to police until nearly ten hours later. “Chappaquiddick” also reveals a lot of political maneuvering with old JFK operatives like Ted Sorensen and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) on hand at the Hyannis Port compound plotting strategy to salvage a career. Kennedy didn’t help his case by making bone-headed moves, such as disregarding the wise counsel of his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and even wearing an unnecessary neck brace to Mary Jo’s funeral in a bid to gain sympathy.
As a historical drama, “Chappaquiddick,” avoiding tabloid scandal fodder, nonetheless results in a gripping, suspenseful tale that is disturbing as well as thought-provoking about what might have been for the future of the Kennedy dynasty.