By Mark Ziobro
As someone born in 1979 -16 years after the assassination of JFK and 10 years after Ted Kennedy left the scene of an accident in Martha’s Vineyard that resulted in Mary Jo Kopechne’s death – the legacy of the Kennedys is somewhat lost in the shuffle. John F. Kennedy Jr. died in 1999, two years after I graduated high school as my family and I were heading for a vacation in, of all places, Cape Cod. That is not to say events of history have not had an effect on me, as others in my age bracket. As such, it is with interest I sat down to watch “Chappaquiddick,” the 2017 film chronicling the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne and its subsequent political handling in the summer of 1969.
As a film, “Chappaquiddick” succeeds in doing what it intends – to relive the events of this tragedy as they afflicted the remaining members of the Kennedy clan. Those members include Ted Kennedy, played here by “Zero Dark Thirty” alum Jason Clarke, his post-stroke and aging father Joe (played by Bruce Dern), and a group of friends and allies comprised of men like Joseph Gargan and Paul Markham, played by Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan respectfully. Mary Jo Kopechne played sweetly in her short screen time by Kate Mara, is an afterthought of this film- and a family – that viewed her as a burden. “Chappaquiddick” doesn’t really give her a voice, though the opposite is suggested by the film’s producer, Mark Ciardi.
What “Chappaquiddick” does is recreate the dying days of the Kennedy dynasty to draw you backward in time to an event that is now in the annals of American history. It is probably fitting that Kennedy, who felt inadequate in his father’s eyes compared to his brothers Robert and John, had this mishap with Ms. Koperchne the same July weekend that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The event, which led to Kopechne’s death, was viewed by Kennedy as part of a ‘family curse’ that has now switched to him. John and Robert were publicly assassinated, yet Ted thought himself a third victim crawling from the shores of Chappaquiddick that July night. The film’s success is in making you feel this emotion, however, misplaced it may seem.
The set pieces are well done, from the wardrobe to the scenes on Martha’s Vineyard, and you get the impression of belonging to a different time. The film, directed by John Curran and written by first-time scriptwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, walks you through this time, starting a day before Ms. Kopechne’s death and through the next week-plus of events that led to Kennedy’s light sentencing for leaving the scene of an accident on Martha’s Vineyard. The film takes hard steps to avoid partisanship but not responsibility. The overarching point is not the tragedy, nor its aftermath, but merely a chronicle of things that happened and was subsequently covered up by people in positions of extreme power.
“Chappaquiddick” has a limited spotlight for acting but is well contained and pleasing. Clarke, who acted rough and tough in both “Zero Dark Thirty” and “White House Down” gets something here that answers for range. While his accent’s a problem (he slips in and out of the New England pronunciation of words several times, often in the same sentence), he manages to instill in Kennedy the insecurity, lack of identity, and poor decision-making that lined much of his time living in the shadows of his revered brothers. “I’m going to handle this my way, it’s my political career on the line,” he mutters in one scene before being taken over a group of lawyers hired by his father. Career is bit of a jump for Kennedy – he needs to avoid going to jail first.
In Clark’s hands, Kennedy’s privilege shows in his lack of remorse for his actions, even when warned by others how these will play out. One scene shows him wearing a neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral and subsequently being lambasted in the press for clearly faking an injury. Clarke plays the criticism off as a nonevent – sort of like he and nearly everyone involved regard the memory of Mary Jo herself.
I was pleased by the acting of Helms and Gaffigan, both comics, who here act with a sense of urgency and sincerity missing from other parts of the picture. Helms, in particular, surprised me. He serves as the film’s sole conscience. His words urging Ted to do the right thing swept by the wayside, one of the film’s most powerful scenes starts with Gargan trying to convince
Ted to do the right thing, then, realizing the lost cause, sits dejected in front of a camera with a bunch of cue cards for Ted to spin the events to the American public.
Rounding these out, Dern performs well as the aging Kennedy patriarch in his final days (he would die 4 months after Ted’s sentencing). His scenes are ruthless and cruel. “You will never be great,” he whispers to Ted, the only bits of spoken words from the man’s mouth during “Chappaquiddick’s run-time.
While Curran’s production has sincerity, it’s not without fault, both in its historical inaccuracies and its slow pace, which requires strict attention. I’ve read press that refers to the film’s script as a ‘page turner,’ and while this sounds good on paper, it’s not the result I walked away with. Like historical dramas (“Lincoln,” for example), the film is slow and steady – it’s the depiction of an event as a journalist reports; there’s not a lot of moralizing or drama here, and others besides history buffs or lovers of indie film will likely find difficult footing. But, at the end of the day, “Chappaquiddick” is a solidly made film with good performances. It doesn’t astound or transcend, but it does what it’s supposed to.