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Chappaquiddick: No Mercy for Ted Kennedy

Over the last year or so, we’ve seen a flurry of compressed-timeline films—Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, The Post, and so on—that center on the circumstances immediately surrounding a momentous historical event. One might even call these anti-epics: their narrative scope is tightly restricted, their casts are slim, and their screenwriting is taut and spare.

Chappaquiddick, in the capable hands of director John Curran, is among the strongest entries in this genre. This is due to its careful choice of subject matter: there’s enough here to generate a satisfying movie, but not so much that the film feels frustratingly stripped of context. One isn’t left wondering why it was made at all (The Post), or, conversely, craving wide-angle establishing shots of events taking place elsewhere (Darkest Hour).

Chappaquiddick delves into a political scandal unfamiliar to most Millennials—the 1969 car accident involving Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (here played by Jason Clarke) and political aide Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). On the night of July 18, following a party on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, Kennedy negligently veered off a bridge and plunged into the water below. While the senator managed to escape the submerged vehicle, Kopechne drowned. Even more damningly, Kennedy declined to report the accident to authorities until late the next morning. (A police diver later testified that if the crash had been promptly reported, Kopechne would likely have survived.)

The days following the accident play out like a second crash, this time in slow motion. We see everything: early attempts at political damage control, spurious claims of “shock” and “trauma” suffered by Kennedy, efforts to bury unflattering coverage amidst reports of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and so on. (In perhaps the film’s tawdriest moment, Kennedy fights with a companion about whether to wear a fake neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral.) Throughout it all, a sense of lurking menace is positively palpable.

In Curran’s telling, Kennedy himself is the chief architect of that menace: Chappaquiddick is no puff piece but a decidedly anti-hagiographic portrayal of its protagonist. Clarke, fully channeling Curran’s bleak vision, infuses his character with a horrifying, House of Cards-lite remorselessness. After escaping from the wreck of his car, a sodden Kennedy staggers back to the Chappaquiddick party house where he’s immediately accosted by a close ally. “I’m never going to be president,” the senator slurs, with nary a word about Kopechne’s fate. Shortly thereafter we see Kennedy lying supine on the fateful bridge, staring idly up at the dark skies overhead, while his two friends repeatedly dive down to the sunken vehicle in an attempt to rescue Kopechne. If this wasn’t enough, Curran juxtaposes shots of Kopechne’s pale body being pulled to the surface with Kennedy sitting down to brunch the next morning.

On-the-nose? Sure. Brutally effective? Absolutely.

Yet remarkably, despite Chappaquiddick’s willingness to subject its central figure to unflinching critique, Kennedy himself never becomes a caricature. Rather, in the context of his tortured relationship with his father Joe Kennedy, Sr. (Bruce Dern), the younger Kennedy comes off as positively sympathetic. Even in the final months of his life, the elder statesman is a positively Machiavellian player, hell-bent on preserving the dynastic power of the Kennedy name. His advice to his son, for instance, distills down to a solitary word: “alibi.” And while this certainly doesn’t exculpate Kennedy, it does explain a good deal: one needn’t speculate much further about the source of the younger Kennedy’s deficient moral sensibilities.

The film closes with the taunting reminder that Kennedy went on to a long career in public service, and was even dubbed “the lion of the Senate.” Perhaps a posthumous reckoning is better than none at all, but such a finale offers cold comfort to the viewer longing for some form of earthly justice. One can only speculate how the Chappaquiddick incident might have played out in the era of #MeToo. Alas, we can never know.

Beyond its haunting themes, Chappaquiddick holds up on the technical fronts. While Clarke certainly takes center stage, the rest of the cast does fine work. Mara is good—if underutilized—and Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan turn in solid supporting performances. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography evokes a grim, David Fincher-esque ambiance, and Garth Stevenson’s eerie, slinky score effectively contributes to this dark mood.

But in the end, nothing lingers so powerfully as Kennedy’s eventual televised plea to the American people to allow him to “put this behind [him],” intercut with footage of Massachusetts residents rallying behind the apparently chastened senator. It’s a flashback to a bygone, pre-Watergate age, one characterized by the naïve belief that the apologies of public figures actually meant something. There’s a certain romance associated with that vision of politics, one of a world without mass cynicism and the demolition of public trust: Chappaquiddick forces its audience to confront the ugliness beneath. Ours is a time of civic disenchantment, for reasons that sadly make perfect sense.

Watching Chappaquiddick is the cinematic equivalent of swallowing a hot ember—and I mean that in the best of ways. This movie unspools painfully, mesmerizingly, like a slow burning sensation working its way through your gut. And yet it’s impossible to look away.

John Ehrett is a native of Dallas, Texas, and currently lives in Los Angeles, California. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School and a certificate in Theology and Ministry from Princeton Seminary.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "Chappaquiddick: No Mercy for Ted Kennedy"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 11, 2018 @ 10:49 pm

Profiles in Courage: a dynasty built from organized crime.

#2 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 12, 2018 @ 5:17 am

“One can only speculate how the Chappaquiddick incident might have played out in the era of #MeToo. Alas, we can never know.”

No different than speculating how Abe Lincoln’s faults and hypocrisies might have played out in the era of #MeToo, or speculating about how Henry the 8th’s behavior might have played out in the era of #MeToo, or speculating about how #MeToo might have tweeted about the Pharaoh of Egypt. What’s the point of this?

This type of weird speculation is the specialty of #MeToo.

They act like the passage of time is not part of the world. They envision a frozen landscape. They think Thomas Jefferson loses his contribution because he did this, and he did that, and so on. Don’t join such a quest, such a mistaken line of thought.

Also: don’t fear them, it’s unsustainable and inhuman.

And it all starts with an idle speculation: hey, what if fifty years ago wasn’t really fifty years ago?

#MeToo is legitime and valuable when they bring attention to women being harassed and raped and violated in our time. #MeToo is stupid when they start time-traveling, bringing their moral code to our ancestors, who did beautiful things but also crucified folks and raped a lot of slaves, no argument there.

#3 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 12, 2018 @ 5:23 am

“One can only speculate how the Chappaquiddick incident might have played out in the era of #MeToo. Alas, we can never know.”

No different than speculating how Abe Lincoln’s faults and hypocrisies might have played out in the era of #MeToo, or speculating how Henry the 8th’s behavior might have played out in the era of #MeToo, or how #MeToo might have tweeted about the Pharaoh of Egypt. What’s the point?

This type of weird speculation is one specialty of #MeToo.

When they act like the passage of time is not part of the world, they envision a frozen landscape, and think Thomas Jefferson loses his contribution because he did this, he did that, and so on. Don’t join such a mistaken line of thought.

Also: don’t fear it, it’s unsustainable and inhuman.

It seems like an idle speculation: hey, what if fifty years ago wasn’t really fifty years ago?

#MeToo is legitimate and valuable when they bring attention to women being harassed and raped and violated in our time. #MeToo is stupid when they start time-traveling, bringing their moral code to our ancestors, who did beautiful things but also crucified folks and raped a lot of slaves, no argument there.

(I fixed a couple of my own mistakes, this is a re-post)

#4 Comment By connecticut farmer On April 12, 2018 @ 8:53 am

Call me cynical but, the effect of-and probably the damage done by- mass media to people’s sensibilities took place long before–going back at least to FDR (never depicted in his wheelchair to shield the public from seeing the Emperor without his clothes–or in this case the use of his legs). As much as we would like to think we’ve “grown up”, in reality we haven’t. We still turn presidents and presidential wannabees into demigods i.e. Bill Clinton, “Saint Hillary” (thank you, Garry Wills), Ronald Reagan, Obama and, yes, even (in some circles) Donnie Trump.

Let the dead bury the dead. “They’re better off dead, poor devils” smirked Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in “The Third Man”. Forty years after Chappaquiddick and large segments of the population (including the media) were STILL waving pom-poms for “The Lion of The Senate”.

Why, it’s enough to turn one into a cynic.

#5 Comment By Tom Cullem On April 12, 2018 @ 9:14 am

I just saw the film and was also impressed by it, not least for it being the Not Oliver Stone bloated attempt to present speculation as fact. One correction to the review, however: Miss Kopechne did not drown: she suffocated after the small air pocket she was clinging to ran out, which occurred over a period of hours. There was little water in her lungs when she was finally brought up. That is why the diver who brought her body up said that had the accident been reported immediately, he could have had her out of the car in 25 minutes. And that was the really horrific aspect to Kennedy’s negligence – the delay cost his passenger her life, not the accident itself.

The film is refreshingly quiet, allowing Kennedy’s actions to speak for themselves, and eschewing lascivious innuendo about any sexual relationship between Kennedy and Miss Kopechne. One is also made aware of how location helped Kennedy: the area was his family’s home territory, and everyone on the island knew him from the public prosecutor to the innkeeper (Hi, Senator, how are you, Senator, afternoon, Senator). Had this happened anywhere else, the cocoon of cooperation that allowed Kennedy to slide off with a two-month suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident might not have been so likely.

Whilst hardly letting the Senator off the hook, it should be noted that the accident, in putting paid to his presidential ambitions, probably was a boon to America: perhaps in honest penance, he went on to become a progressive Democrat in the better sense of the term, who spent the rest of his political life acting on behalf, according to his lights, of the less fortunate in America. Unlike his two elder brothers, Ted Kennedy seems to have taken advantage of the time he was given to learn from his mistakes.

#6 Comment By Tom S. On April 12, 2018 @ 9:48 am

If Ted ever wanted to become president, Chappaquiddick put an end to that. The ensemble acting in the film was brilliant. Bruce Dern conveyed more power as the paralyzed and inarticulate Joe Kennedy than I have seen in a long time.

#7 Comment By paradoctor On April 12, 2018 @ 10:32 am

He’s dead. What are you going to do, dig him up and prosecute his skeleton?

#8 Comment By mrscracker On April 12, 2018 @ 10:44 am

Emil Bogdan:
“#MeToo is stupid when they start time-traveling.. ”
**************
I’m repeating something I’ve posted elsewhere so please forgive, but there’s a term: “temporal provincialism” that I saw in another publication & I think that sums up our attempts to strictly hold previous generations to the moral standards of our time.
Our culture has norms that will certainly be found lacking by future generations. Most of us are blind to the evils accepted in our day but we demand a higher standard of our forbearers.

#9 Comment By Dimitri Cavalli On April 12, 2018 @ 11:06 am

Another possibility is that Mary Jo Kopechne didn’t drown but suffocated inside an air pocket in the car. No autopsy was done on the body, which could have determined if she drowned or suffocated.

Clueless Joyce Carol Oates once suggested that Miss Kopechne’s death, while tragic, may have been worth it given all the government goodies Ted Kennedy helped create over the decades. After a backlash, Oates backtracked.

#10 Comment By Colonel Bogey On April 12, 2018 @ 11:16 am

In Robert Bork’s America, it wouldn’t have taken almost fifty years for ‘The Liar of the Senate’ to be shown for what he was: a drunken little sleazebag with no concern for the lives of others. (Of course, if he had done the decent thing and immediately tried to rescue Miss Kopechne, he would probably have accidentally drowned her and himself both.)

#11 Comment By Uncle Billy On April 12, 2018 @ 12:59 pm

A terrible tragedy, but it may have saved us from Ted Kennedy in the White House.

#12 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 12, 2018 @ 1:29 pm

When I enrolled at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1962, “the Ted Kennedy controversy” was still being discussed among students and faculty. Wikipedia gives a brief outline of why “the Ted Kennedy controversy” would not die at UVa:

“Due to his low grades, Kennedy was not accepted by Harvard Law School. He instead…enrolled in the University of Virginia School of Law in 1956. That acceptance was controversial among faculty and alumni, who judged Kennedy’s past cheating episodes at Harvard [Kennedy was expelled from Harvard for two years for cheating] to be incompatible with the University of Virginia’s honor code; it took a full faculty vote to admit him…While [at UVa], his questionable automotive practices were curtailed when he was charged with reckless driving and driving without a license [after a chase with police]. Ted graduated from law school in 1959.”

#13 Comment By b. On April 12, 2018 @ 2:01 pm

“Our culture has norms that will certainly be found lacking by future generations. Most of us are blind to the evils accepted in our day but we demand a higher standard of our forbearers.”

Very well put.

Regime change begins at home, in the here and now.

#14 Comment By Allen On April 12, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

Tom Cullem: Loved that you recommended the movie for being the Not Oliver Stone version. I think Ollie Stone enjoyed the 60’s so much that he can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality anymore. He is the P.T. Barnum of filmmaking.

#15 Comment By The Mysterious Stranger On April 12, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

I thought Kate Mara’s name was familiar and looked her up. She played Zoe Barnes in House of Cards. Those who have seen it may find this a bit spooky, as I did.

#16 Comment By William Murphy On April 12, 2018 @ 4:59 pm

Chappaquiddick inevitably reminds me of a British satire show decades ago which extolled the virtues of a dolphin running for President.

“He hasn’t devastated any part of South East Asia – yet. Gets around better than George Wallace. Swims better than Teddy Kennedy”.

#17 Comment By Clyde Schechter On April 12, 2018 @ 6:16 pm

I was in my early 20’s at the time, and it was the first time I truly understood that, to paraphrase the tag line of a movie that came soon after, being in power means never having to say you’re sorry.

But here we are 50 years out, and we still elect the scum of the earth to the highest offices in the land, where they are free to act with impunity. I suppose there haven’t been any murderers in Congress since that time, as far as I know, but that’s about the only disgusting thing they don’t do any more. Obviously positions of power selectively attract sociopaths, but our system lacks any way of weeding them out as they rise up the ladder.

“Of course, if he had done the decent thing and immediately tried to rescue Miss Kopechne, he would probably have accidentally drowned her and himself both.”

No. If you’ve ever had training in lifesaving you know that it is *not* the decent or right thing to attempt a rescue you are not capable of carrying out. The decent thing to do in that situation is to get suitable help as fast as possible. Had that been done, there is every reason to believe that Ms. Kopechne would have survived.

#18 Comment By Joel D’Errico On April 12, 2018 @ 8:01 pm

When you compare Teddy’s inactions and actions

to Jack’s in PT 109, he is 180 degrees away
from proper behavior . He could have saved
Mary Jo. Instead he was a self centered louse
listening to his old man another one.
He should have been convicted of 2nd degree murder
or manslaughter. The movie should have come out
decades ago. The family fought it.
Camelot NO CHEATALOT YES!!!!

#19 Comment By Donald On April 12, 2018 @ 8:24 pm

I don’t know much about Chappaquiddick, but assuming it was as portrayed here, I don’t think the chronological argument people are making really applies here. People 50 years ago understood it was wrong to place your political career above a woman’s life. This was apparently a standard example of the rich and powerful getting away with something that a normal person couldn’t get away with so easily. People have understood this was wrong ever since, for instance, King David arranged for the death of Uriah to cover up his adulterous affair with Uriah’s wife. Not saying this is the same as Chappaquiddick— just saying that people 3000 years ago understood that the powerful often try to live by their own rules.

And again, I have no idea whether Kennedy was as guilty as he is portrayed here.

#20 Comment By DrivingBy On April 12, 2018 @ 8:42 pm

A. The MeToo folks just came out in _support_ of Backpage.com’s sex trade ads, which seem to be it’s primary source of revenue.
B. The movie is coming out in the MeToo era. Go check the comments on HuffingtonPost, TheHill, etc.

#21 Comment By DrivingBy On April 12, 2018 @ 8:51 pm

“the delay cost his passenger her life, not the accident itself.”

Kennedy was able to get himself out without difficulty. He could have easily pulled the slightly built Mary Jo out along with him, he decided otherwise.

“Lion Of The Senate.”

#22 Comment By Mary Smith On April 13, 2018 @ 3:10 am

Just another Kennedy cover-up. Read Margolis / Buskin bk” The Murder of Marilyn Monroe. Very well investigated. MSM doesn’t even talk about it. Several years ago, MS CAVED IN TO carolyn Kennedy to not show the miniseries on the Kennedys Katie Holmes.

What gives? The Kennedy hagiography is still alive in some pockets. MOVIES LIKE CHAPPAQUIDICK R GOING TO BEGIN TO CHANGE THIS!

Seymour Hersh: The Dark sIDE OF cAMELOT: ANOTHER GROUNDBREAKER- READ IT!!!!!!!!!

#23 Comment By mrscracker On April 13, 2018 @ 10:42 am

Donald says:
“I don’t know much about Chappaquiddick, but assuming it was as portrayed here, I don’t think the chronological argument people are making really applies here. People 50 years ago understood it was wrong to place your political career above a woman’s life.”
************
For sure. I was very young in 1969 but I remember friends’ parents reacting in a similar way that folks might react if this happened in 2018. With the internet & social media though, things could differ somewhat today.

As a Christian, I can’t presume to know what happened during the accident or what was in Mr. Kennedy’s heart. But his actions following the tragedy were certainly not defendable.

I’m no fan of Teddy Kennedy but with his widow, children & step children still living, it doesn’t seem to me charitable or in good taste to promote a box office/entertainment film about this tragedy. There are plenty of resources online if one really wants more info on Chappaquiddick.

#24 Comment By spaceman On April 13, 2018 @ 11:23 am

People get over it. You can’t change the past.
Its just to sell movie and books.

#25 Comment By Rossbach On April 14, 2018 @ 11:55 am

“There’s a certain romance associated with that vision of politics, one of a world without mass cynicism and the demolition of public trust…”

Politicians like the late Ted Kennedy (and JFK and Bobby) are one of the main reasons why the American public has become so cynical about this nation’s political leadership. Perhaps we can begin to repair some of the damage these people have done to our nation by undoing some their more dysfunctional contributions, like reversing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act).

#26 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On April 14, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

“But here we are 50 years out, and we still elect the scum of the earth to the highest offices in the land, where they are free to act with impunity.”

Retarded comment. Trump never killed a girl, and there is good reason to think he would have acted rightly in that situation. He’s selfish, but he’s not a coward.

Also, it’s a stretch to think Trump would have committed adultery on his honeymoon, as Ted did with Joan. You ever wonder why she had nervous breakdowns?

#27 Comment By Brian McGowan On April 15, 2018 @ 6:05 am

In 1980 my Ward Committeeman in Chicago offered me 2 new garbage cans if I voted for Teddy in the primary. How fitting.

#28 Comment By Tom Cullem On April 15, 2018 @ 11:00 am

@DrivngBy – apologies for the late reply, I do not always have the time to revisit and see responses. I disagree with your comment, as we have no idea how Kennedy got out and and the assertion that he did so easily is unlikely. There are few more difficult efforts than getting out of a vehicle submerged in water. As a later poster also pointed out, water rescue efforts of this kind are not easy and are often quite dangerous. The sensible thing to do, and the one that had the most chance of succeeding, was for Kennedy to have run and called for expert help immediately. It was his delay that doomed the young lady.

#29 Comment By Kopechne Mourner On April 15, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

Amazing how NONE of the Readers’ comments here acknowledge the one indisputable fact that, if Kennedy had called 911 or even summoned help immediately after he rescued himself (only), his young and seductive aide would probably be living (as quoted a diver the next morning at the scene); the Lion of the Senate instead callously just went home and rested himself.

And these are American Conservative readers? Shame on you.

#30 Comment By LouisM On April 16, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

Ted Kennedy deserved no mercy. Ted was an immature frat boy. Everything hard earned by Joe, Jack and Bobby was handed to him on a silver platter to which he was both a drunkard and a womanizer. Mary Jo Kopeckni was nothing but a casualty to him and his career. He didn’t mourn her death because it was the needless loss of life at his hands, nor did he mourn her death because of love lost. He mourned her death because of what it meant to his political career and to the political careers of the Kennedy clan. Its not right to judge someone I don’t know and never met but that is my opinion of him.

It was not just Mary Jo Kopeckni’s death that Ted is responsible but the loss of reproductive rights for men and the embrace of radical leftist abortion rights that have killed millions upon millions of babies…and at the same time Ted was championing abortion rights…Ted was also opening the gates of unrestrained and uncontrolled immigration thru his reforms.

One can take a look at many of our contemporary problems and they can be traced to Ted Kennedy (and LBJ). The most respectful and honorable thing Ted should have done would have been to drop out of politics completely and let a different Kennedy rise to a leadership role even if it took 10 or more years to do so.