Even if you aren’t old enough to remember the sensational incident that inspired this movie, Chappaquiddick offers a fascinating portrait of a man burdened by a family curse: Edward “Ted” Kennedy. The year is 1969 and the junior senator from Massachusetts is living in the shadow of his three elder brothers: Joseph, the “chosen one” who died in World War Two, Jack, who became President but didn’t live to serve out his first term, and Bobby, who was gunned down in yet another national tragedy.
Mary Jo Kopechne was riding with Ted Kennedy when his car careened off a narrow bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. The aftermath of this horrific incident is what defined the Senator and his powerful family for years to come.
First-time screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan read nearly 1,000 pages of testimony at an inquest held six months after the accidental drowning of a female campaign worker. They didn’t want to make a film about a scandal: they were more interested in crafting a character study, and they have succeeded with flying colors.
Jason Clarke is superb as the youngest Kennedy son, whose closest friend suspects that he has been trying to self-destruct since Bobby’s assassination. Ted knows he has been a disappointment to his demanding father, even though the old man can barely speak following a debilitating stroke. Ed Helms is excellent as the family “fixer” and confidant who tries to serve as Ted’s conscience during the tumultuous days following the late-night accident. Every actor in the film performs at the same superior level including Kate Mara, Jim Gaffigan, Olivia Thirlby, and Clancy Brown. Bruce Dern manages to express a great deal with minimal gestures and dialogue; Joe Kennedy remains the most intimidating figure imaginable in this private look at the 20th century’s most public political family.
I’ve long admired director John Curran’s work, from The Painted Veil to the underappreciated Tracks, with Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver. This is yet another first-rate film that should capture the attention of anyone who remembers the Ted Kennedy incident (as I do) as well as young people who want a credible slice of recent American history. Chappaquiddick does justice to a story that has never been explored before in movie form.