Review: 'Chappaquiddick' rises above the Kennedy curse

Posted Tuesday, July 10, 2018 at 4:56 PM Central
Last updated Tuesday, July 10, 2018 at 4:57 PM Central

by John Couture

As a child of the late 1970s, I was introduced to the allure of the Kennedys from a young age. My parents lived through the turbulent 1960s that saw that rise and fall of two powerful young Kennedy men. Some would say that the Kennedy curse hit the youngest brother Ted the hardest.

Of course, some will say that he deserved it.

And that is the crux of the difficulty in bringing the events that happened on Chappaquiddick on the evening of July 18, 1969, to the big screen. The facts are simple. Ted's car ended up going off a bridge, he survived, while his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne did not. From there, things are a bit murky as everything we know about the accident comes from Ted himself. Throw in the fact that two days later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would take man's first steps on the moon and you can see what sort of environment the summer of 1969 truly was.

We will never know what happened during that fateful car ride and since Ted died in 2009, the true facts will remain buried in history forever. Chappaquiddick spends less time getting bogged down in the minutiae and instead opts to show a deep character study of the man who could have had it all.

Jason Clarke is tasked with bringing the larger than life senator to the big screen and he does so with such a fine touch. His performance exudes the situation around him and the mantle of expectations that he carried through his death. While his brothers saw their political aspirations end on the wrong side of a bullet, Ted's political career stagnated the night that Mary Jo died and he had to live with that for the rest of his life.

The film delves into the inner machinations of a powerful political family and the themes resonate to this day. Many people felt that Ted Kennedy was above the law and the events of Chappaquiddick only proved this to be true. We have seen various scandals over the years since in politics and each time Ted Kennedy's past transgressions were brought up.

Jason Clarke is phenomenal as I mentioned, but there's another performance worthy of recognition. Ed Helms plays Kennedy cousin Joe Gargan who was at the fateful party and later councils Ted on what to do. Helms is best known for his comedic roles, but here he dons a rather convincing Massachusetts accent and delivers a rather scorching dramatic performance that will leave you with a newfound respect for the actor.

As I said, my family was obsessed with the Kennedys, but I never really did much research on Chappaquiddick before. I knew the broad strokes and the controversy, but I never really took the time to appreciate both the personal tragedy of the Kopechne and the political ramifications of this singular event. The film does an admirable job of conveying the latter, but if you're looking for the former or a deeper dive into the conspiracy theories around Chappaquiddick, then you might want to look elsewhere.

At the end of the day, the cast is full of superb actors such as Bruce Dern and Kate Mara and their performances help to deliver a convincing report on one of the more controversial political moments in U.S. history. The film is wise not to draw conclusions that would be suspect at best. Instead, it allows its cast to paint a masterpiece that you must then interpret as the audience.

Chappaquiddick probably won't change any minds, but it will help to educate those of us who didn't live through it. Of course, with the moon landing a couple days later and Woodstock a month after that, the summer of 1969 wasn't lacking for newsworthy events. Perhaps had the car accident happened at a time when public interest wasn't immediately shifted away from it, then things may have been different. As it stands, Chappaquiddick is simply left as a footnote to a busy summer that truly shaped the future of our country.

Chappaquiddick is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.