Chappaquiddick portrays the 1969 “incident” at Martha’s Vineyard, in which Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove his car into a lake, killing passenger and former campaign specialist Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). After the accident, Kennedy claims he tried to save Kopechne, but to no avail. However, the crux of the impending scandal is the fact that Kennedy does not report the incident until the next morning, after Kopechne’s body has already been discovered by police.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is director John Curran’s glossy, direct and stylistic direction. Curran contrasts Kennedy’s seemingly picture-perfect exterior with his problematic private life, the part that very few people were able to witness. The weight of “the Kennedy name” is stressed throughout the film, often in reference to Ted’s inability to live up to it.
Of course, the film would never be able to succeed without Jason Clarke’s formidable performance at the late Senator. While Clarke’s Kennedy initially seems charismatic and manipulative, he devolves into robotic stupidity as he is influenced by the scores of advisors at his disposal. The man who was once believed to be the puppeteer is revealed to be the puppet, succeeding when he does what other people tell him but tangling the strings when he tries to work alone (i.e. that neck brace). Ed Helms should not be overlooked either for his portrayal of cousin Joe Gargan, Ted’s trusted ally-turned-critic in the wake of the Chappaquiddick scandal.
The decidedly negative portrayal of the Kennedy, as well as the portrayal of his actions in relation to Kopechne’s death, is what has caused pushback against this film. CEO of Entertainment Studios Byron Allen told Variety that “there are some very powerful people who tried to put pressure on me not to release this movie.” Supporting this film has become somewhat of a partisan issue— with conservatives praising its portrayal of the “acidic glamour of power” and liberals slamming it for “trafficking in conspiracy theories.” Whatever the case, Chappaquiddick is a worthwhile character study that reintroduces the notorious scandal to the public eye and depicts the turmoil that comes with being a Kennedy. ★★★½