On 18th July 1969 a car containing only Senator Edward Kennedy and a young political intern called Mary Jo Kopechne went off the Dike Bridge over a river on Chappaquiddick Island. That much we know. Those are the facts; everything else is partly speculation or has to be reconstructed, as this interesting film reminds us.
Kopechne died but somehow Kennedy got out of the car and swam away from the scene. He recovered from the accident, but his career and presidential ambitions never did. The name Chappaquiddick passed into American folklore such that this one word title is enough to flag a whole iceberg of conspiracies, manipulations, and evasions.
Perhaps the only slight question about this movie is why they should seek to revisit this incident now, especially since there have been so many books written about it and it is more or less impossible to add much, at least in terms of interpretations/documentation. But then again, in a time where US politics seems to have entered an almost hallucinatory era of ‘fake news’ and multiple cover ups and conspiracies, maybe this is unexpectedly timely.
Director John Curran (who made the wonderful Aussie movies Praise (1998), and more recently Tracks (2013)) does a pretty good job, both in terms of realising the times and also in directing his talented ensemble cast. He also strikes a good balance between treating the incident as a kind of thriller or murder mystery (which it could possibly be to those under, say, thirty), and a character study. Incidentally Ted, one of the four notable brothers from the iconic but somewhat cursed clan, actually spent his whole life trying to atone for his stupid mistake by being a conscientious senator for decades, but the film only covers that in a caption.
As a character study the film shows Ted as more naïve (and sheltered) than deeply Machiavellian. In fact, he is shown as initially leaning towards acting on his Catholic conscience but, despite himself, becoming swept up in the omnipotent media manipulation tactics of ‘team Kennedy’. There are also brilliantly ambiguous scenes with his father; the much-despised patriarch Joseph Kennedy. The perfect cameo from Bruce Dern manages to make the severely stroke-afflicted Old Joe still a very scary guy. The lead portrayal of Ted by Australian actor Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) is also praiseworthy. He manages to look physically convincing and his performance, which has to anchor the whole film, is overall subtle and watchable.
Some might find the film a bit wordy or even confusing, but it is very well-directed and it has enough appeal to justify audience curiosity.