Run time: 1 hour 41 minutes
Stars: Jason Clarke, Bruce Dern, Ed Helms, Kate Mara
Director: John Curran
We will never know precisely what happened the dark night of July 18, 1969, when Edward Kennedy changed U.S. history by driving his car off a Massachusetts bridge, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Witnesses mostly clammed up ever after, an autopsy was never performed, and important officials avoided investigating the full facts about the tragedy involving a local hero. But the quietly, tensely intelligent film Chappaquiddick gets us a bit closer to the truth, because its factual research, including the state’s inquest into the case, is meticulous and its necessary speculations are infinitely more plausible than, say, Oliver Stone’s flashier yet utterly fanciful JFK, about President John Kennedy's assassination.
Jason Clarke, 48, most recently seen in Winchester, does a wonderful job as Ted Kennedy, the tormented kid brother of murdered Jack and Bobby Kennedy. He conveys the pressure Ted felt to win the presidency — which he might have accomplished if he hadn’t driven that night — and to please his father, Joe (Bruce Dern, 81), a terrifyingly demanding presence even after the stroke that severely restricted his speech. Dern’s skillful performance is on a par with any 10-words-or-less role in film history.
The story unfolds in a non-tabloid fashion, deftly sketching the people gathered for that fateful party, a reunion of Robert Kennedy loyalists about a year after his death. Ted hoped that some of the “boiler room girls,” six incredibly smart and ambitious young women who worked on RFK’s campaign, would lend their impressive expertise to his upcoming campaign. Several of the women, all under 29, became eminent attorneys or lobbyists, and one, Esther Newberg, is among the greatest literary agents of our time. Newberg has bitterly attacked the film’s veracity but declines to say what is erroneous. Mary Jo (Kate Mara), who typed RFK’s presidential campaign announcement and helped write his important speech on Vietnam, would almost certainly be known for her life’s work if she’d lived to be 77 today.
Instead, she wound up a 1969 tabloid headline: “TEDDY ESCAPES, BLONDE DROWNS.” Actually, it appears that she died of asphyxiation, according to this film and other testimony. After the car crashed upside down in the water, the diver who eventually retrieved her body said she was trapped in an air bubble, estimating that she was alive for hours. After Ted wriggled free of the car, he said he repeatedly dove into the water to save her, but failed. He said he had no memory of how he escaped.
Incredibly, Ted then failed to notify rescuers or police, avoided the several homes with phones near the bridge, and spent the next 10 or so hours devising strategies with his appalling advisers, including his cousin and fixer Joe Gargan (Ed Helms, 44, who proves himself more than a funnyman). When police got belatedly involved, they sympathized with Ted.
If this were a fictional film, critics would lambaste it for its unlikely finale: Ted gets a tiny suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident and becomes the fourth-longest-serving senator in history, “the Lion of the Senate.” But that’s what happened. Chappaquiddick doesn’t solve the mystery, and some of its scenes are invented. But it gives a vivid sense of the people to whom history happened.