Ask yourself ‘why make a film about a half century-old fatal car accident and release it in the midst of the scandal-ridden Trump era?’ If you do not see the connection, you may miss the political message of Chappaquiddick (2017).
The story is etched into American history. After drinks on a Friday night in July 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove his car off the Chappaquiddick bridge leaving staffer Mary Joe Kopechne (Kate Mara) to drown. We see Kennedy swim from the vehicle without concern for his passenger and emerge from the river to speak the words “I will not be President”. Without looking back, he leaves the scene of the crime to find the nearest phone to call daddy, the venerable but stroke-affected Joseph Kennedy Sr. (Bruce Dern). The only advice given in that call is contained in the single word “alibi”.
What we see next is an ugly portrait of unbounded privilege, framed by a total absence of moral compass. A team of high-powered and highly-placed political cronies gather to create the spin that might save Ted Kennedy’s presidential prospects. When the facts go public, his long term political ambitions are set aside while all efforts are directed to keeping him out of jail and hanging on to his senatorial seat. Whatever sympathy anyone might have for the tragedy-prone Kennedy family dissipates at the sight of Ted’s weakness of character, immature self-interest, and total disregard of the truth.
There is little cinematic embellishment needed to make this a tense political docu-drama. The filming and acting performances are grounded in realism and the sets, clothing, and atmosphere have an authentic 60s look. Jason Clarke bears a remarkable resemblance to Ted Kennedy and has a bewildered “deer in the headlight” naivety as he surveys the mess he created and the disgrace he brought to the family name. The only moment in the film where it is possible to feel something for this spoilt man-child is when he cries to his daddy that all he ever wanted was his father’s pride. In response, his father slaps him in the face and croaks “you will never be great”.
The film’s highest achievement is to show how little we have evolved as a political species. Ted’s efforts to manufacture fake news that might exonerate or ameliorate his guilt is what powerful people continue to do. America quickly forgave this “unfortunate incident” to save their royal-equivalent ‘Camelot’ family. His suspended sentence for fleeing the scene did not stop him becoming the fourth-longest serving US Senator and a liberal champion of social causes. The film could be criticised for not acknowledging his later achievements. By choosing not to recognise the possibility of redemption, the film defaults to defining life-long character by its lowest point. That’s how we will judge today’s leaders.
Director: John Curran
Stars: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Bruce Dern