In the new movie, Chappaquiddick, directed by John Curren, written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan and starring Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy, we have an old-fashioned tragic drama of the kind that has been missing from the American cinema scene for years.
In particular, what has been missing from the American cinema scene is movies that tell the truth. Chappaquiddick manages to tell the truth about an incident that changed American history and politics, and by telling the truth it portrays Ted Kennedy as an all-too-human figure, someone caught in a no-win situation that ended up with a tragic outcome.
The Kennedy family had taken on a mythical quality by the time the events of the movie occurred. John F. Kennedy had become President of the United States and was one of the most popular Presidents ever; and then he was assassinated. Robert Kennedy, his younger brother, then ran for President and seemed destined to win the Democratic nomination when he was also assassinated. That left the youngest Kennedy brother, Ted Kennedy.
Everybody expected him to be the next President and carry on in the footsteps of his two older brothers. The only problem was that Ted was not Presidential material. He is portrayed in the movie, and was in fact in real life, a man with an inferiority complex, a man who mutters to his father at one point, “I don’t know who I am.” He doesn’t have the character to be President, but he is expected by politicians and lay people alike to take the Presidential baton and run with it.
The movie depicts him caught in this dilemma and suffering from depression. One night he is at a party and he sits by himself, his body humped over in a haze, his eyes with a far-off look, a characterization excellently done by actor Jason Clarke. Mary Jo Kopechne, a former secretary to Robert Kennedy, tries to console him. They go for a drive. Kennedy is mean drunk and speeds down the roads. Kopechne tries to speak to him but he doesn’t talk. He puts his depression into action.
It appears that he is angry and suicidal. He is angry that he has been cast into this role, that all this pressure is being put on him. He never wanted to be President. Maybe he never even wanted to be a Senator. But his father and others expected it of him. He was a Kennedy and that’s what Kennedys did. So he was angry and he stops the car at one point and just sits there brooding silently. Kopechne tries to talk with him but he won’t talk. Then the police chief sees the car sitting there on a Chappaquiddick road with its lights on and gets out of his car to yell from a distance what is going on.
Kennedy quickly starts the car and begins speeding down a narrow island road towards a bridge. It appears he is hell-bent on killing himself. He heads toward a dangerous bridge that he has traveled over before, and when the bridge curves to the left his car falls off the bridge into the water. He manages to get out of the car and swim to safety. He then sits on the bridge in a stupor. He does nothing to try to save Mary Jo Kopechne, who is still alive in the car.
He does not call for help. Instead he sits on the bridge thinking about how his political career is over. Eventually, he walks to the party where his colleagues are—his half brother and a legal aide–and tells them they have a problem. They drive back and the two men take off their clothes and try to save the girl. Kennedy sits in the car, still in a stupor. The car is floating upside down in the water. The two men dive into the water but cannot open the doors. Ted’s half brother advises him to report the incident to the authorities on the island and get help. He says he will.
But instead he crosses the lake in somebody’s boat, walks back to town to his hotel, takes a bath, and lies in bed, while Mary Jo Kopechne is shown to be sticking her head into the last bubble of air in the car and trying to survive. Not for a moment does Kennedy think about the dying girl. He is only thinking about his own dilemma. On an unconscious level, it appears he does not care if the girl dies, or perhaps even wants her to die. He is angry and when people are angry the anger often becomes displaced.
Afterwards, Democratic members of Congress come to Chappaquiddick and try to find a way to fabricate a story that will serve to save Kennedy’s career. The movie is unflinching in showing just how deceitful American politics is. There is no concern for the truth, only for creating an alibi and saving Kennedy’s career. The story portrays the week following the accident and details the hypocrisy of all the politicians and attorneys who were there. They were not at all concerned that a girl had been killed, possibly murdered. Their entire focus was on how to shape a plausible alibi.
In the end Kennedy seems to feel relieved as he reads a statement on TV and tells the voters of Massachusetts that they will decide whether he runs for reelection to the Senate. He at first contemplates resigning, but at the last minute, with the advice of his colleagues, comes up with this speech. At the end of the speech there is a little smile on his face. The burden of expectation and pressure to be President has been lifted.
This movie is not just great cinema art, done with subtle direction and acting and production values, but also a glimpse into the human folly of politics and human deceit in general. It captures a psychological dilemma that could happen to any of us, and it is at the same time a warning tale about who we as a people trust to lead us, and providing insight into the political in-fightng that presently divides us.