'Chappaquiddick': Film Review | TIFF 2017

A detailed but less than gripping account of a dicey Kennedy family incident.

John Curran's drama focuses on the 1969 incident when Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove off a bridge, causing the death of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).

It’s doubtful that many Americans under the age of 40 or so even know what the name Chappaquiddick refers to, which might in itself provide solid justification for making a film about it. But the drama of the tragic July 18, 1969, accident in which Senator Ted Kennedy drove a car off a little bridge on the eponymous little Massachusetts island and left 28-year-old political staffer Mary Jo Kopechne to drown needed more energetic and incisive treatment than it receives in this sober, somewhat slack telling. As it is, the film’s main justification is star Jason’s Clarke’s quite plausible physical, if not vocal, resemblance to the career politician whose presidential possibilities were arguably forever quashed by the incident. The film’s big-screen commercial potential seems highly questionable, although it could achieve some mileage on home viewing.

Telling this story today, with the Kennedy family’s dirty laundry now having been thoroughly inspected for decades, theoretically opens the door for a tell-all approach to a sorry episode that always carried lurid overtones of drunkenness, sexual impropriety, cover-up and family influence exercised from on high. But the film is surprisingly low-key dealing in all of these areas, simply suggesting that, because the incident took place in Massachusetts, the family’s home state royal power obviously played a role; the funniest line in the film comes when crafty old patriarch Joe Kennedy, virtually incapable of speaking at this point, is asked for his advice over the phone and manages to croak out, “Alibi!”

It’s impossible to watch this film without imagining how such an incident would be covered today; very likely, the young woman would not have died had there been cellphones, as she was apparently still alive in the submerged car for at least two hours, maybe three or four. But even more astounding was Ted Kennedy’s not reporting the incident for 10 hours, then the fact that a story that otherwise would have provided endless headlines became an afterthought when the first moon landing took place two days later.

First-time screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan have done their homework in organizing the material but haven’t brought an argument to the table that might have zapped the film to life; everything is methodical, it covers most of the bases, but passion and vitality are crucially missing from director John Curran’s treatment. Six “boiler-room girls,” young women (all 28 or younger and unmarried, the film fails to mention) so-named (also unmentioned) for the sweaty room in Washington where they all worked on behalf of Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, have gathered for a little reunion with six male staffers (all married, unmentioned) at a small cottage off Martha’s Vineyard.

As staged, the event proves quite uneventful. No one, including Ted Kennedy, and certainly not Mary Jo (Kate Mara), seems really loaded, and when the latter says she wants to leave, Ted volunteers to drive her. If he has something naughty in mind he doesn’t show it, but he does drive off the bridge and lands the car upside down in the drink, which isn’t very deep. A perplexing question to this day is how Kennedy got out of the car and Mary Jo did not; he said he never remembered.

What follows is an illustration of how the rich and powerful are different from ordinary citizens: Kennedy waffles, returns to the house and actually goes to bed, considers telling the lie that he wasn’t driving, watches the moon landing, has a weird audience with his ailing father (a suitably convincing Bruce Dern), dons a neck brace at Mary Jo’s funeral in an attempt to generate sympathy and eventually gives a speech on TV that more or less makes done with the issue. All the while his staff is buzzing around developing different notions of how to react and implement damage control, all in the service of the exercise of power and how to keep it. In the event, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a crash causing personal injury and got a two-year suspended sentence.

Clarke hardly goes deep in bringing multiple aspects of Kennedy to vivid life, but the Australian actor (who was born one day before the accident) doesn’t take long to be accepted as a plausible stand-in for the fourth, youngest and last surviving male offspring of old Joe. Ed Helms, as Ted’s harried cousin and adviser Joe Gargan, has the most to do among the supporting cast, while Mara registers sympathetically and, alas, all too briefly as the tragic victim.

The score by Garth Stevenson leans too often toward the slow and morose for the good of the film’s forward movement.

Production companies: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, Apex Entertainment
Cast: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols, Olivia Thirlby, Bruce Dern
Director: John Curran
Screenwriters: Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan
Producers: Campbell McInnes, Chris Cowles, Mark Ciardi
Executive producers: Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan, Tom Duterme, Doug Jones, Steven Schuler, Ben Rose
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Production designer: John Goldsmith
Editor: Keith Fraase
Music: Garth Stevenson
Casting: Marisol Roncali, Mary Vernieu
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)

105 minutes