“There are some very powerful people who tried to put pressure on me not to release this movie.”
Those were the words of Byron Allen, CEO of Entertainment Studios and executive producer of indie historical drama Chappaquiddick. The film, which tells the story of Ted Kennedy’s accident that resulted in the death of staffer Mary Jo Kopechne, and the aftermath in particular, was always going to be a controversial film. The sides of the story’s basis have largely been drawn along political lines, although the involvement of the film itself challenges that notion – director John Curran is a self-described liberal.
But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The basis of the film, for those that may not know, is that Ted Kennedy drove his car off of a bridge one night in 1969 with staffer Mary Jo Kopechne in the car. He escaped from the car and swam away; Kopechne did not, and he did not report the accident until the next morning. After pleading guilty to leaving the scene of the accident, Kennedy received a jail sentence of two months, which a judge suspended.
Hard as it is to remove politics from this story, the film gives an admirable effort. Nothing negative is ever said in the film about either of Ted’s famous brothers, and none of Ted’s politics are ever criticized. In fact, Jason Clarke’s portrayal of Ted Kennedy is pretty positive leading up to the accident. He’s an ambitious politician living in the shadow of his big brother who probably has a pride problem, but is hardly a mustache-twirler. Grounded by his relationships with cousin Joe Ragan (Ed Helms) and friend Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), he appears as relatable as a famous politician can be. It’s the aftermath of the accident that shows things unraveling.
It would be naive to deny that the film has a distinctly anti-Kennedy bent. The writers believe Kennedy responsible for Kopechne’s death, and make that clear fairly early on. For example, one of the first responders tells a hurried medical examiner that her death looks more like suffocation than drowning (Kopechne is shown gasping for breath in an air bubble in the cab of the car). He is waved off dismissively. The ensuing aftermath is mostly a tug-of-war between Kennedy’s public relations team, scrambling to salvage Kennedy’s chances for the presidency, and Joe, who wants Ted to do the right thing. Within that context, the film’s tone is sober and muted, both its greatest strength and weakness. That approach helps minimize tendencies toward embellishment, but also functions better as information than story.
Joe serves as the moral center for the film, which is largely concerned with how the self-obsessed and insecure Ted Kennedy is more concerned about his own reputation than Kopechne’s death. Clarke plays this aspect of the character well, balancing pride and insecurity while avoiding hyperbole and gravitas. Yet it’s still significant that his first words after the accident are “I’m not going to be President.” At this point, it’s Ed Helms as Joe that drives much of the story (outside of the moral decline of Kennedy himself). His supporting performance, an impressive turn for one mostly known as a comedian from The Office, is full of the anxiety this type of movie requires, but also a degree of internal conflict and compromise that fully develops his character.
In the end, I find this a hard film to talk about as a film. It’s extremely difficult to separate not just the story from the facts (as is the case with all historical dramas), but the film from its inspiration. I ultimately feel this is a story that needs to be told. Whether this is the most effective way to tell it, and what lessons are gleaned from the telling, those are different, if overlapping, concerns. Ultimately, I found it to be a carefully told tale of moral decline, both humanizing and appalling, sometimes within the same scene. It’s unlikely to sway those who have been on Kennedy’s side since the event, and will of course enact confirmation bias for the other side. But I like to think it will be informative and thought-provoking for those in between, or those young enough to be less set by the original events. A friend I watched the film with said at its end, “I still think what he did was terrible, but I think I understand why the public was behind him. Who knows, I might have been during that time period too.” Given that, as Roger Ebert said, films are empathy machines, perhaps this is exactly what historical drama is good for.