With Chappaquiddick, John Curran has directed a thoughtful and visually lovely depiction of the 1969 incident in which Ted Kennedy’s car went off a bridge and passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, former aide to Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, drowned. Jason Clarke portrays Kennedy, in shifts from sympathetic moments of integrity to mind-boggling insensitivity, with subtle and believable brilliance. You want to hate Ted Kennedy, and mostly do, but cannot entirely.
Because oh yeah. An innocent woman died a horrible death.
By the way, don’t see it expecting to learn more about Kopechne. Even her grieving parents are depicted as little more than cardboard cutouts. When Kennedy cousin and adviser Joe Gargan (in a standout performance by Ed Helms) tearfully expresses sympathy, her father replies, “and who are you?” He’s not a Kennedy, see. Gargan is an afterthought, even to the people whose daughter he tried much harder to save than Ted did.
It would feel like redemptive justice if we got to know more about who Kopechne (Kate Mara) was through this film. But ultimately Kennedy gets the focus and our deliberation. While there’s no new information in the film, experiencing the timeline with the characters makes the tragedy seem real and uniquely American. For instance, the Apollo moon landing happened mere days after the Chappaquiddick incident. The timing was convenient in terms of media suppression, but the psychological impact on Ted must have been incredible. He shamefully puts the nail in the coffin of a trusted friend, his presidential bid, and his father’s approval, at the same time that his adored brother posthumously puts a man on the moon.
Really, really short review: Chappaquiddick is frustrating and thoughtful, and one of the most beautifully filmed movies I’ve seen recently.