Last weekend, a fresh-faced cable news correspondent introduced a segment on Chappaquiddick by saying the movie would “make a splash” at the box office.
I studied his earnest millennial face for signs of guile or snark or irony. Finding none, I concluded that he had no idea what the movie was about, and considered the possibility that his generation, raised on stories of a chap who plays quidditch, knows less about Chappaquiddick, a defining event in the evolution of the most important political dynasty of the postwar era.
Boomers, on the other hand, know well the story told in this sturdy new docudrama. It’s 1969, and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) leaves a boozy party with a young, single woman, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). He drives his car into the water, staggers back to the party, informs a few close friends (Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan) who instruct him to notify the police, but instead he goes to bed. The next morning he officially notifies police of the incident, eight hours after the fact. They visit the scene of the accident, and find Kopechne dead in the submerged car.
The facts of the case have been chewed over for decades, so why retell it? Well for one thing there are details here worth recounting: The movie quotes crime scene investigators who conclude that Kopechne did not die instantly, that she fought for survival at some length, during which time a prompt reporting of the accident may well have saved her life.
For another, viewing these events from the perspective of our changed Time’s Up culture gives them new meaning. The movie actually opens on Kopechne — portraying her as a smart, savvy young woman who wants a career in politics. We see that for women of that time, a career in politics meant a job in the secretarial pool, attending parties with politically powerful married men.
Young women like Kopechne were exploited, and they were expendable. Accountability in her death becomes secondary to the damage-control efforts initiated by the powerful, connected Kennedy family.
A thorough investigation would likely ruin Kennedy’s prospects for higher office, and he is his family’s last hope for a claim to the presidency. Clarke conveys the weight of this, and Ted’s ambivalence about it. When he confesses the incident to family patriarch Joe (Bruce Dern), he gets a slap in the face, and is shuttled into a room where longtime Kennedy family advisers/fixers (Clancy Brown as Robert McNamara, Taylor Nichols as Ted Sorensen) move to clean up Ted’s mess and control the narrative.
And to game the news cycle — dominated that weekend by the Apollo 11 moon landing, a project initiated by Ted’s brother Jack, whose legacy looms like a disapproving ghost over the sorry cover-up.
Their official story, assembled from selective or alternative facts — Ted heroically tried to save the woman, but a concussion prevented him from acting rationally in the hours after the incident.
Who’d believe such a thing?
Plenty of folks.
The movie closes with archival footage of voters voicing support for the senator. Even a Kopechne decides to close ranks around Ted, for the good of “the cause.”
The ability of political power to impose narratives, says Chappaquiddick, has always been conditional on our willingness to believe them.
- Directed by John Curran. With Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan and Clancy Brown. Distributed by ESMP.
- Running time: 1 hour 47 mins.
- Parents guide: PG-13 (scary situations)
- Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.