Chappaquiddick: character study deprived of its wider historical background and significance

John Curran, “Chappaquiddick” (2017)

A thoughtful and well-acted film, as the metonym title suggests, this work revolves around the drowning tragedy of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick island, Massachusetts, in July 1969 while participating in a reunion of former political aides to US Senator Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy who had been assassinated a year earlier while campaigning for the US Presidency in Los Angeles. Kopechne had been riding in a car driven by Kennedy’s younger brother Edward, known as Ted, himself a senator for Massachusetts and under consideration (and pressure) from the Democratic Party to run for the Presidency in 1972 against incumbent Richard Nixon, when the car sped off a wooden bridge and plunged into the water that surrounded Chappaquiddick. Edward Kennedy escaped from the car as it sank but Kopechne, apparently asleep in the car’s backseat, drowned.

All the action in the film takes place over a period of roughly seven days from Friday, 17 July 1969, to Friday, 24 July 1969, and the film divides into seven or eight chapters based on the significant events that happen on each day. In its first half-hour, the film deals with the reunion of Kopechne (Kate Mara) and her fellow “Boiler Room Girls”, Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign aides, all brought together by Edward Kennedy (Jason Clarke) in the hope of persuading them to work on his 1972 Presidential campaign, running up to the accident and Kopechne’s drowning. The rest of the film deals with the fall-out from the tragedy and how Edward Kennedy, his close aides Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), and the Kennedy family and its immediate supporters and advisors confront that fall-out and work with it – or against it.

Edward Kennedy comes across as the spoilt youngest son of a formerly powerful and not at all pleasant patriarch Joe Kennedy Sr (Bruce Dern) who is regarded as something of a black sheep yet is also expected to carry the legacy of his three older brothers, of whom the eldest died in World War II and the other two died by assassination, and become US President. In awe of his father, crippled by stroke though the old man is, Edward delays reporting the accident to the police in spite of his aides’ advice and spends much of the film trying to save his own skin and escape responsibility for the accident and the legal punishment he must face.

In a significant scene, Edward Kennedy is confronted by a virtual war council of men-in-black spin doctors and advisors led by former US defence secretary Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) who craft out a strategy aimed at minimising the damage of Kopechne’s drowning and the legal consequences (a possible manslaughter charge and the prison sentence that came with it) to Kennedy and his family. This scene illustrates how far the Kennedy family was prepared to go to shield its youngest son and the one remaining hope for the US Presidency from the consequences of his drink-driving actions. Through this scene, the calculating, manipulative and ruthless nature of US politics and its effects on a leading political family – and by implication, other families closely associated and involved with US national politics – are revealed.

Clarke does convincing work as the troubled Edward Kennedy, forced to carry a burden he should never have had to carry and at a loss as to his place and purpose in the world (let alone US national politics), and wavering between conflicting advice from his aides, of whom Gargan also happens to be his cousin, and his frightful father. Dern is excellent as Joe Kennedy Sr, conveying the old man’s terrifying presence in just a few words of dialogue while stuck in a wheelchair. Helms and Gaffigan are also good as Edward Kennedy’s conscience, fallible though they are. Mara portrays Kopechne as an intelligent young woman, with the result that Kopechne’s death becomes all the more tragic, that such a person with the brains, talent and experience she has should have been thoughtlessly abandoned to die, and then after death treated as an inconvenience to be brushed aside.

The film’s low-key and sober style may be very underwhelming for a mainstream audience and its subject matter may not mean anything for American viewers for whom even Bill Clinton (US President from 1992 to 2000) is just another historical figure. Strangely the wider social and political context in which the Chappaquiddick incident and its repercussions for Edward Kennedy, and the Kennedys generally, take place is completely removed from the film; viewers will get no sense of the rivalry existing between President Nixon and the Kennedys, or of the ongoing Vietnam War at the time, and be able to relate those events to the current rivalry between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and the ongoing wars in their various forms (actual physical war, cyber wars, propaganda wars among others) being prosecuted by the US in Afghanistan, Syria and other parts of the world.

The fact that the Chappaquiddick incident and its aftermath seem to take place in a world divorced from the real world of the US in the late 1960s, and that such a separation effectively alienates the incident from those who most need to know it and learn from it, and to understand something of the nature of US politics in the way it shields certain people and throws away others like Kopechne as if they were no more than used paper napkins, is a major fault on the director’s part. Without this wider context, the film loses historical value and is likely to be used to demonise Edward Kennedy’s character now that he is dead and his legacy as a US Senator for Massachusetts for nearly 50 years recedes into faded memory.