by Ken Bakely
By now, movies about the Kennedys feel like passion plays. They’re performed with dirge-like deliberation, done out of a sense of national and cultural obligation. We know the stories, we know who was involved, and we have our own opinions about their place within a greater pantheon. John Curran’s Chappaquiddick is, for better or worse, performing double duty. It combines a straightforward depiction of one event while meditating on the ever-shifting relationship that Americans have with the Kennedy name and its legacy. The leadup to the incident is rushed through with aplomb: Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), during a weekend get-together of family associates, crashes his car into the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, and his passenger, rising political strategist Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), dies.
The controversy would be inevitable, but it’s infinitely worsened when it’s discovered that Ted waited several hours to report the accident to the police. A first responder says that the shallow waters off the bridge mean that Mary Jo’s death was not instantaneous, and she could have lived. Set against the weekend of the moon landing, the influx of advisors and confidants descending upon the family compound in Hyannis Port take great solace in the towering primary news story when executing damage control. After all, this feels insurmountable. Early scenes in the film feature characters casually mentioning Ted’s presidency as an inevitability. This is juxtaposed after the accident, when he breaks the news to friends and allies Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) by starting his account with a simple “I’m not going to be president.”
Curran, and screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, are interested in how the lens of contemporary politics colors our perception of the mechanistic motions undertaken to mitigate the impact of the incident, and keep the family name as unvarnished as possible. The film ultimately lands on a personal examination of Ted as the last surviving son, who must balance forging his own future while assuming the status as the new head of the family, pointed out to him in no uncertain terms by his ailing father, Joe (Bruce Dern). In that sense, Clarke’s performance is admirably blank, portraying Ted at the mercy of his surname and all that comes with it, where everything that happens to him is history.
Yet it’s abundantly obvious that Chappaquiddick wants to be about more than the few days immediately after its titular event. Its sweeping, wide-angled cinematography is a visual indicator of deeper fatalism, and the clunky exposition in its dialogue is indicative of further attempts at forming a grand thesis on influence and consequence. The problem is that Curran seems overwhelmed. He blows through the incident, slows down to showcase the Kennedy machine in action, and then races to the finish line, trying to file rapidfire observations on the implications of a society in which nostalgic reverence for a name allows a spectacular offense to become joke fodder. (A guilty plea resulted in a suspended sentence, and Ted Kennedy served in the Senate until his death 40 years later.) The movie is attentively uneven, only knowing that its focus is somewhere in a general vicinity. As Ted squabbles with Joe Gargan, who prefers he resign his post to placate a basic moral conscience, material that could fuel an entire other take on the subject is just another cog in a final act.
Curran toys with the idea that Chappaquiddick showed both the weakness and strength of the spell the Kennedys held over 20th century Americana. He makes obvious that concealing flaws and misdeeds are known aspects of this relationship, but concedes that that the public was primed to forget about the incident on anything further than a this-is-just-a-thing-that-happened level. The movie’s tight procedural setup is undone by a wandering payoff, implying that the story is somehow fundamentally over and metaphorically ongoing. By the time the credits roll, Ted Kennedy is a loose proxy for all forms of power abuse. Mary Jo Kopechne, portrayed so well by Kate Mara in those first scenes, has faded faster. Mara holds the character at a calculated arm’s length. She knows that we will never get to know the woman, and on a more elemental level, that history will forget her as a person and take her up as a factoid. Chappaquiddick holds her in our minds as the car settles in the water, but such strong images are gradually replaced by fuzzier scope-broadening.