This is an easy movie to avoid even for you historians.
Having lived through the 1960s where I experienced all of the trauma, Chappaquiddick was a movie beyond my ability to appreciate. Whatever happened when Senator Ted Kennedy drove off that bridge resulting in the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne is a story that I don’t care to revisit.
As I have said in other reviews, I graduated from Batesville High School in 1965 and Marian College, now Marian University, in 1969. In the process, I watched the agony of my beloved parents following the death of President Kennedy in November, 1963 only to be engulfed in my own agony with the death of Senator Robert Kennedy in June, 1968. With the election of Richard Nixon months after RFK’s death and facing being drafted into a Vietnam War that I passionately opposed, it was hard to care about anything.
And then Ted Kennedy drives off a bridge and it looks like his career is over. This film, directed by John Curran, analyzes this tragic event over the period of a couple weeks, and it was hard to feel for Teddy even with the unimaginable pain his family experienced over a few short years.
Jason Clark, a wonderful Australian actor, does a very good job playing Kennedy, but it was hard for him to accomplish anything that moved you emotionally. On the night of the accident, he was drinking with Ms. Kopechne (Kate Mara) and others at a party where he ends up alone with her in a car late in the evening. Though the film suggest that there was nothing personal going on between these two, you only needed to look at the reaction of Ted’s wife, Joan, when they got into a car following Ms. Kopechne’s funeral to come to a different conclusion.
Broken down to its basics, the movie does little more than describe how Senator Kennedy used a group of professionals that included Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) and Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols) to help smooth over this monstrous event so that Teddy’s political career would survive. Scene after scene involved moments where the most important thing in Kennedy’s entourage life was to fix this case and make it go away, and you didn’t leave the theater with a lot of admiration for anyone.
On the other hand, it is important to point out that Kennedy was immensely helped by the fact that Armstrong landed on the moon on the same weekend as the Chappaquiddick accident. As a result, he played second banana in a story where he normally would have been headlines in every paper of the country. Armstrong’s historic statement, “One giant step for mankind” had great meaning to him.
On a positive note, it is worth noting that Ted Kennedy went on to be a monumental force in the United States Senate, and in the process he was able to earn a great deal of admiration that was all but lost with the death of Ms. Kopechne. To his everlasting credit he was able to earn the respect of even those who felt he was responsible for Ms. Kopechne’s death.
Before closing, one last comment. Bruce Dern makes a short appearance as Joseph Kennedy, Kennedy’s father. He was an invalid and in 24-hour care of a nurse. Nonetheless, he is shown expressing both his anger at his son as well as his support, which pretty much represents my reaction to this day.
Regardless of your feelings about the Kennedy’s, it is important to remember one thing. The oldest son, Joseph, was killed in combat in World War II. That was followed by JFK and RFK’s death at the hands of assassins, and you can only imagine how you would react if that happened to your family. My feelings about the Kennedys are best represented by this old statement from Jesus Christ, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”