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USA 2017
Directed by
John Curran
101 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Synopsis: On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) accidentally drove his car off a bridge on Massachusetts' Chappaquiddick Island. The accident resulted in the death of passenger Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a 28-year-old campaign strategist who had worked for Robert Kennedy.

Director John Curran’s foray into one of the last chapters of the Kennedy family legend is a sober and sobering film built on what appears to be a well-researched script by writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan and featuring a compelling performance by Australian actor Jason Clarke as the benighted Ted Kennedy, the only remaining Kennedy son after the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the death of their older brother, Joseph Jr., in WWII.

Although the basic facts are well-known, no-one, bar Ted Kennedy himself, and then perhaps not even he, knows what really happened that fateful night. According to this version after escaping the sunken car the Senator for Massachusetts and would-be 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee, tormented by the realization that he would now never be President, walked back to his beach-side holiday house leaving Kopechne who was still alive in the submerged car, to eventually suffocate. He only reported the incident nine hours later by which time he had cooked up a statement to exculpate himself from wrong-doing. The bulk of the film is given over the ensuing days in which the Kennedy camp tries to spin its way out of the debacle and Kennedy himself tries to reconcile his actions with the Kennedy public image, preserved with iron resolve by his father, Joe Kennedy Snr (Bruce Dern). No real concession is made to speculation about exactly what was going on that night when Kennedy, whose pregnant wife was at home and would later miscarry, and five other married men held a “team-building” party with six so-called “Boiler Room Girls”, all single young women in their twenties.

Fortunately for Kennedy, two days later Apollo 11 landed on the moon (or so the story goes) and the nation was distracted by an uprush of national pride. Kennedy’s minders moved quickly to quell the media firestorm and Kennedy rode it out with a slight reprimand, although his tilt at the White House was finished.

Chappaquiddick is pleasingly efficient and low key in portraying the mechanics of the cover-up as a familiar case of political pragmatism. Only Kennedy’s close advisor and extended family member, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), who according to this version tried to save Kopechne, provides a voice of moral dissent to the wholesale white-washing.

Kennedy is presented as a considerable chump and a classic case of a male heir psychologically maimed by paternal expectations, a burden compounded by the mythical weight of his three older siblings.  Kennedy alternates between squirming falsehoods and blustering outbursts, all the while concerned more for the family name and his political career than the loss of the life of a girl with whom he supposedly had a close relationship. Clarke, bringing off a passing physical similarity, does a marvellous job in capturing this essentially lost individual.

Chappaquiddick is certainly not the legacy that Kennedy would have wanted (he died in 2009). It is clearly going to resonate with audiences who can recall the scandal, which today has largely been historically eclipsed by Watergate, but those who can do so will be substantially rewarded. In a broader context the film stands with Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (2014) as an intriguing portrait of the crippling effects of unearned wealth and privilege.




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