Film review: Chappaquiddick


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, July 26th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham reviews a film about an infamous story from America’s political history.

MEGAN BASHAM, REVIEWER: It’s almost impossible to imagine Chappaquiddick could have been released during Ted Kennedy’s lifetime. It would have sparked a deafening outcry from certain segments of Washington and the media. And it’s still fairly staggering it was released two years after his death when so many of the former senator’s close colleagues still walked the halls of Congress. I can only surmise that the #MeToo movement shut the mouths of those who would have otherwise railed against turning over this particular rock.

CLIP: Get Joe Gargan, we’ve got a problem. Sure, Ted. C’mon, Teddy. What’s the big idea? I’m not going to be president. 

On the other hand, it was a bit of a shame the film was marketed so heavily to conservative political outlets. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were among its loudest boosters. That possibly marginalized it as propaganda by those detached, young crowds that have the most to benefit from seeing it. Because on its face, Chappaquiddick, now available on Netflix, isn’t a movie about Republicans or Democrats or politics of any sort. It’s a searing, personal drama about the damage wrought by extreme privilege.

CLIP: The court of public opinion will have your head on a stake. Well, give it to Sorenson. We won’t have that problem. Problems, Ted. Plural. They are three-fold. One, the information we know that we need to make sure no one else knows. Two, the information we don’t know that we need to make sure stays unknown. Three, the information that you have already admitted to that we need to make people forget. 

Director John Curran details the facts surrounding Mary Jo Kopechne’s death with a restrained, responsible hand. The cast is mostly spectacular as well, including Jason Clarke as Kennedy and Bruce Dern as his father Joe. Ed Helms and comedian Jim Gaffigan play Kennedy’s unwitting conspirators. Curran uses some creative license to stitch the timeline of facts into a narrative. But that limited inventing doesn’t serve any agenda. 

The film follows Kennedy from the hours before he crashes his car into a pond to his sickening decision to go home and sleep instead of call the police, and all the posturing that follows. Through it all, Curran weaves a cautionary tale beyond politics and untethered from any particular decade.

Kennedy cousin Joe Gargan, played by Ed Helms, makes the moral stakes undeniably clear. 

CLIP: Teddy, what are you doing? What does it look like? I’m winning back the sympathies of my constituents. Yeah? It looks fake. It’s as real as can be. It’s a real neckbrace. Well, it looks fake on you. You’re not a victim, Ted! 

Later, he lobbies Kennedy to withdraw from public life. Kennedy isn’t a remorseless villain—a part of him yearns to do this.

At times, Curran even draws our sympathy for a man who experiences brief flashes of determination to make what amends he can. Clarke’s uncanny performance exhibits desperation that someone at least allow him to lessen his spiritual burden through confession. Then he gives in to the temptation of easy escape and suppresses his conscience again. 

CLIP: Joey, you have flaws. We all do. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. I have Chappaquiddick. Yeah, Moses had a temper, but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea. 

How hard it is for a rich man to face justice willingly when so many toadying, low-level officials are happy to help him avoid it.

In fact, the movie is almost too careful to avoid sensationalizing events. Though it treats Mary Jo with dignity, we don’t get much sense of who she was. It’s almost as if letting us know her better would tip the scales of judgment too far against Kennedy. Kate Mara’s reserved, almost monotone performance doesn’t help. Mary Jo remains mostly a blank slate. As a result, even though the events depicted are horrific, they lack the urgency to horrify. 

The film, rated PG-13 for disturbing images and brief language, also leaves too much of Kennedy’s character ambiguous for those who aren’t already familiar with him. We know from his dialogue that he feels inadequate compared to his brothers. He suffers from a reputation as the family failure, and his father dismisses him as an unserious man. 

CLIP: My dad once said to me, “Teddy, you can lead a serious life or you can lead a non-serious life, and I’ll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you choose to lead a non-serious life, I just won’t have much time for you.” I can’t believe he would say something like that. Ah, it’s ok. I was just a kid. 

But for the generations who didn’t experience the Kennedy era firsthand, a CliffsNotes level of context would have helped us feel more engaged.

Chappaquiddick leaves us with a clear implication that it would have been better for Kennedy personally and for the American political system as a whole if he’d spared his state the ignominy of continuing to elect him. Kennedy’s shame wasn’t his alone. It also belonged to those who knew what he’d done and asked him to lead them anyway.

CLIP: Would you vote for him again? I certainly would. Definitely. There’s a lot of things missing that I didn’t understand. But, like, as the story progressed, you know, you hear different versions and you make your opinions. What was your final opinion? That he really was, that he didn’t remember what he really did and that he’s telling the truth. Would you vote for him? Do you think he should be the president? Oh, I’m not qualified to say that, I really don’t know. I think I would vote for him though.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.


(Photo/Apex Entertainment, Netflix)

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One comment on “Film review: Chappaquiddick

  1. Debi says:

    There was evidence that she was still alive when he left the scene.
    For years I thought of this every time his name was mentioned.
    How could a person do that … and then continue his life like nothing had happened?

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