“I’m not going to be president” are the first words uttered by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) when his friends Joe (Ed Helms) and Paul (Jim Gaffigan) find him sopping wet in the backseat of a car parked outside of a house party on Chappaquiddick Island in the wee hours of July 19,1969. It’s not the car in which he left the party with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), and she is nowhere to be seen. Heavy weighs the crown of the last standing Kennedy son, and with one horrible mistake, he can see his future, which will never involve the White House.
There’s no dearth of mysterious legends to mine from the dark, glamorous lore of the Kennedy clan. And Ted Kennedy’s involvement in the fatal car accident that took the life of Kopechne has yet to receive the cinematic treatment, until now, in John Curran’s focused “Chappaquiddick,” written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. It’s a lucid depiction of the tragic scandal, resulting in the death of a young woman, an irreparable black mark on Kennedy’s career.
It’s almost as if the filmmakers had to wait for an actor like Jason Clarke to come along to truly tell this story the right way. The brawny Australian actor slips seamlessly into the Boston-accented burly physicality of Teddy Kennedy, disappearing completely into the role. His Kennedy is cerebral and contemplative, highly aware of his family legacy, often selfish, caught up in his own image and sometimes completely disassociated from reality.
“Chappaquiddick” doesn’t try to understand why Kennedy did what he did — drunkenly driving his car off a bridge, leaving the submerged vehicle with Kopechne’s body inside and failing to report the incident to police for 10 hours — but it carefully illustrates the enormous pressure of his name and family, and his emotionally abusive father, Joe (Bruce Dern). He’s entitled, the son of privilege and power, and that entitlement both enables and imprisons him.
With Allen and Logan’s script, and legendary cinematographer Maryse Alberti, Curran crafts a detailed depiction of the enclosed culture of 1960s Martha’s Vineyard, and particularly Chappaquiddick Island, a far-flung seaside village where time and place seem to cease to exist, cut off from the real world. The freedom of this place, and the familiar sense of safety and support, creates the conditions for these events to unfold as they did, not just the drunk driving but the sense that the event is something that can be controlled and contained.
Alberti’s cinematography works in concert with the editing by Keith Fraase to create an aesthetic that is ominous and textured, flickering between the subjective and objective. The moments leading up to the accident are dreamy, observational snatches of memory caught and hung for a moment. The bridge and headlights loom large out of the darkness again and again like a threat.
Fraase laces flashbacks of the crash throughout Teddy’s consciousness. Even if he walked away intact, he can’t escape the sound of her last warning, his own yells in the night, and we can’t escape Mary Jo’s last gasps of air. While the intrigue of the political machinations in the aftermath are gripping, the film never ignores the horror of the death Kopechne suffered, a long, cruel drowning.
“Chappaquiddick” seeks to expunge Kennedy’s record of the incident, so loaded with rumor, gossip and lies, or condemn him, or justify his actions. It holds him accountable, and grapples with the impossible question of doing the “right” thing, but that question is almost moot. There are just the choices you make, the actions you take and the consequences thereof. The way Kennedy handles it changes his life, and the course of history. It makes him a man of his own consequences, for better, worse and for at least one moment in time.
Cast: Jason Clarke, Ed Helms, Kate Mara, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Olivia Thirlby.
Directed by John Curran.
Running time: Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language and historical smoking.
©2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.