‘Chappaquiddick’ Shows An Old Kennedy Trope And A New Family Mystery

“Chappaquiddick,” the latest installment of Kennedy family history put on film, recently hit theatres, giving audiences a new family mystery to dive into. (Courtesy of Entertainment Studios)

“Chappaquiddick,” the newest installment of Kennedy family history put on film, gives an account of the true, yet still misunderstood events that occurred June 18, 1969 on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. The film plays a balancing act of ’60s nostalgia, privilege critique, and moral drama — quite effectively taken on by director John Curran.

That same night, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Jason Clarke) hosted an extravagant, intimate dinner party, where the guests included the Boiler Room Girls, a group of six single female staff members on Ed’s brother Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign staff in their 20s, and four older, married men.

Following the gathering, the senator ran his sedan off a bridge and crashed into the water below. Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), one of the Boiler Room Girls, died in the car, while Kennedy did not ask for help or report the accident for over a day.

The local police never got a complete timeline of events (a recent Boston Globe article provides an extensive fact-check). First-time screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan pose a possible version of events. Here, Kopechne remains trapped in the car, alive and suffocating while the senator stands by without offering real help.  

Much of the true melodrama ends there, as the film reveals nothing more than a cordial relationship between Kennedy and Kopechne, the two brought together by a shared lasting grief over the death of Robert Kennedy in 1968.

The remainder is, rather, a deep character study of the youngest, and longest living Kennedy brother who ultimately died in 2009 from brain cancer. Portrayed as sensitive and somewhat unpoised, it is clear he lives in the shadows of his three older brothers who have all passed on.

Clarke is skilled in blending the lack of confidence, total privilege and power, and fear of loss of reputation, which haunt and drive Kennedy. Also notable is Ed Helms (Andy Bernard from “The Office”) as Joe Gargan, a most loyal Kennedy cousin willing to do anything to help the family in their grieving process, and to ensure Ted’s continued political career. It is somewhat interesting that this film would come out at this time of year, removed from the running for any 2018 film awards; Helms could have a relatively good shot at Best Supporting Actor as the character portraying the emotions felt in the audience (i.e. playing the audience surrogate).

Allen and Logan were intentional in their portrayal of Kopechne, giving her an equal character role and development as that of Kennedy and the many other men in the cast. From the outset, she is most energetic in spearheading efforts for Ted’s presidential campaign, clearly seeing continued political prospects for herself given the abrupt end to Robert’s career.

The only further glimpse of soap opera comes with the men-in-suits villains in the form of Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols), and the Kennedy patriarch Joe (Bruce Dern) who seek to cover up the incident, dragging down Ted’s pride and character in the process. They also systematically dehumanize Kopechne, going well beyond the victim trope to one of malicious intent.

Sen. Kennedy ultimately pleads guilty to leaving the scene of the crash causing personal injury, leading him to decide against campaigning for president in 1972 or 1976, while he had been widely expected before the incident. While it disturbed his career, it did not end it (Kennedy served in the Senate until his death).

Labeled “compulsive Kennedyism” by some, Hollywood’s grim fascination with each and every aspect of the Kennedy family is almost as aggravating as the large slew of animated and live action remakes teeming through movie theaters.

To its credit, “Chappaquiddick” strays from the sensational and takes hold in the characters it portrays, while still basing itself in plausible fiction rather than known facts (of which there is little in the realm of deep Kennedy family life).