Last night my wife and I watched Chappaquiddick. I’d been curious about the movie since I first heard of it last year and had hoped to catch it in theaters earlier this year but never got the chance. I’m glad I finally saw it—it was worth the wait.
Chappaquiddick dramatizes one week in the summer of 1969—the same week, coincidentally, that Apollo 11 launched, reached the moon, and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon’s surface. The weekend of the launch, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy attended a party with several friends and staffers and “the Boiler Room Girls,” young secretaries who had worked on his elder brother Bobby’s abortive presidential campaign. (By the time of the events depicted in Chappaquiddick, Bobby had been dead just over a year.) Late in the evening, Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year old secretary, left the party. About an hour and a half later, Kennedy drove off a bridge into a tidal pond. The car flipped and came to rest on its hood and roof, upside down in the water. Kennedy got out—how remains unclear—walked back to the party without attempting to get help from any houses he passed, and enlisted the aid of friends Joe Gargan and Paul Markham. After attempting to get into the partially submerged car, Gargan and Markham told Kennedy he should contact the authorities immediately and rowed him across the channel to Edgartown, where Kennedy went to his hotel room and went to bed. He didn’t contact the police until 10:00, by which time the car and Kopechne’s body had been discovered. The subsequent scandal consumed much of the next week and threatened to end Kennedy’s career.
The film dramatizes all of this in an unsensational, straightforward style that only makes it more powerful. Its cinematography, editing, design, and costuming are just right, nailing a feel of period authenticity without overindulging in 1960s clichés. It feels authentic and the time period carefully informs the plot—several characters bring up the Apollo 11 landing as a potentially useful distraction.
The film is interestingly cast, but all of the actors work well in their parts. Ed Helms (The Office’s Andy Bernard) plays Joe Gargan, an old Kennedy friend, “the only brother I have left,” according to Ted, who becomes disillusioned as a result of the carefully stage-managed scandal. Gargan is the soul of the film and Helms plays him well, as a loyalist whose conscience hasn’t completely calcified, and who pays a price for it. Jim Gaffigan, America’s favorite comedian, plays US Attorney Paul Markham, one of the two men Kennedy first trusted his story with. One especially interesting choice is Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption’s Byron Hadley) as Robert McNamara. Brown makes the weedy nerd, who tried to run the Vietnam war on stats, into a powerfully intimidating presence. (See below.) Bruce Dern as Joe Kennedy, Ted’s wheelchair-bound father, is especially good with just a handful of scenes and barely three lines. Of all the characters who hold Ted in contempt, it’s Dern’s Joe Kennedy that packs the hardest punch.
The star, and the performer who makes the whole thing work, is Aussie actor Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy. Clarke’s Kennedy is profoundly galling—a cocktail of impotent resentment and entitlement, vulnerability and grandstanding, loyalty and bottomless dishonesty. He’s also stupid. Some stretches of the middle of the film play like black comedy, as if this were a real life political scandal created by the Coen brothers. Kennedy claims to have a concussion and to be on sedatives. “Did anyone actually consult a doctor?” one of his staffers says when a New York Times reporter immediately sniffs out the deception. When old Kennedy stalwarts enter the picture to lend their help to “protect the senator”—a phrase that grows creepier the more it is repeated—genuinely capable men like Robert McNamara seem barely able to conceal their disdain for Kennedy, especially as his lies and miscalculations begin to pile up.
Chappaquiddick’s Ted Kennedy lives in the shadow of three older brothers, all dead, all more favored by his once powerful father Joe, and while the film makes this clear right from the opening credits, it doesn’t attempt to make this an explanation or excuse. It’s simply part of who Ted Kennedy is, as much as his sailboat regattas and faithful buttkissers, and what the film dramatizes is how he chooses to live with that.
What we see him do is avoid reality by walking away from the accident and refusing to report it for nine hours, shift blame by laying the burden to report the accident on Gargan and Markham, and scramble to place his contradictory half-truths and lies in the order most advantageous to him. While he talks a lot about doing “the right thing,” it’s only talk. He even comes close to using the phrase “alternative facts” at one point and, at the end, offhandedly says “I don’t know what’s right anymore.” And he never passes up an opportunity to make the death of Mary Jo Kopechne through his own negligence broader systemic problems, about his family’s legacy, about him. When he asks Gargan to prepare a resignation for him ahead of a live TV statement, he discards it and instead tries to raise political support from his viewers. Kopechne’s parents watch in silence.
And that team of capable people does rally to protect the senator. From the local sheriff to insiders in the Massachusetts DMV to former cabinet members, a Yankee good ol’ boy network comes to the aid of this shortsighted, petulant, deceitful man-child and tries to help him escape the consequences of his actions. It’s as well-crafted a depiction of the rot in our political system as we’re likely to get, so we should learn from it.
But, importantly, it’s not just a story of a crooked politician and the mafia-like cabal of enablers that kept him in office, it’s a story about the voters. The film’s sting is in its finale, as archival man-on-the-street interviews show Massachusetts voters considering the story and, mostly, saying that they would reelect Kennedy. And they did, over and over again.
Chappaquiddick’s most important lesson seems, to me, to be that while political corruption is inevitable, and there will always be Ted Kennedys, the reason it’s inevitable and the reason they stick around is because we allow them to. Gargan, Markham, McNamara, and the others were the most visible parts of the coverup, but Ted Kennedy’s real enablers were us.