Updated: Feb 6, 2020
In 1969, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy was driving a car on the island of Chappaquiddick when it plunged into the water, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who had worked on the Presidential campaign of his brother Robert. The based on a true story drama Chappaquiddick focuses on the days immediately following this event. It is well acted and generally entertaining though, like many films covering a true story filled with unknown details, it feels heavily dramatized and lacks real insight into the people involved.
For many, the Kennedys remain a fascinating family of near mythic stature. Stories about them still command a lot of attention, so it is no surprise to get a movie about the biggest event in Ted’s life. There are many unknowns in this story, which means the screenwriters (Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) had to make some guesses and use creative license. That is expected in a movie like this. And their timeline creates an artificial tension that makes Chappaquiddick more exciting than it would have been otherwise.
The (generally successful) attempts to make this story cinematic do not bother me. What does bother me is that it is not clear on what kind of person it thinks Ted Kennedy was. Was he a screw-up and a buffoon? Or was he merely misguided and misunderstood? Or was he all of those things? The movie wants to blame him for his actions while also feeling sorry for how he ended up in that predicament. Those kind of complicated emotions could have worked, except that Ted, at least as presented here, is not sympathetic. He is selfish, confused and makes terrible decisions. If the film was more of a character study, it could have delved deeper into his psyche and the way his family experiences contributed to his problems. But it is not, so his lack of consistency presents a little bit of an issue. His motivations are all over the place and that makes the movie kind of frustrating at times.
Chappaquiddick (101 minutes without the end credits) relates its story in a sensationalized way that is interesting to watch, but ultimately empty. Because of the narrow focus, there is no clear idea of how he got to that moment or how that event effected the rest of his life. Jason Clarke is good as Ted Kennedy, but the film seems content to have him be Kennedy instead of letting him really play the role. This is not a straight biopic and at times he gets lost in his own story.
Ed Helms is very good in support as Kennedy cousin Joe Gargan, Ted’s lawyer and the film’s moral compass. He cares about Ted and tries to steer him to do the right thing. He has depth and is easily the most interesting character in the whole movie. While he may not have been my first choice for the role, he certainly delivers. It is Helms’ best dramatic performance. He keeps the film grounded and gives us one character we can empathize with.
A scandal involving the Kennedy family certainly makes for some juicy movie material. And what is here is solid enough. Director John Curran and his screenwriters tell this story in a very direct way. However, I cannot help but feel like this approach was somewhat limiting. There is no larger context on either a historical or personal level. That and some weak characterizations blunt Chappaquiddick’s overall impact. It is a decent film with the material to have been a fascinating one.
3¼ out of 5
Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy
Ed Helms as Joe Gargan
Jim Gaffigan as Paul Markham
Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne
Bruce Dern as Joe Kennedy
Clancy Brown as Robert McNamara
Olivia Thirlby as Rachel Schiff
Directed by John Curran
Written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan