I’m a bit of a political junkie. The people who hold power and how they choose to wield it is always intriguing to me. "Chappaquiddick" is the story of a defining incident in the life of the powerful Senator, Edward M. Kennedy who served from 1962 until his death in 2009. He was, of course, a member of a great American political dynasty that began with his father, Joseph Kennedy who had been U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. The stunted presidential ambitions of the elder Kennedy were laid on the shoulders of his many sons, with tragic consequences. The weight of the Kennedy mantle and the moral weakness it revealed in Senator Edward Kennedy is explored in "Chappaquiddick."
Edward Kennedy is played brilliantly by Australian actor Jason Clarke. Clarke's resemblance to the young Kennedy is remarkable as is his nearly flawless Boston accent. Kate Mara, who you may remember from early seasons of “House of Cards” plays Mary Jo Kopechne, the 28 year old political operative who had worked on Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign.
“Chappaquiddick” is a story about the weight of unfair expectations, the lust for power and the self-delusion that often comes with it. It’s a story about the power of public relations propaganda to sway opinion and the willingness members of the public to believe whatever is most convenient despite the evidence.
“Chappaquiddick” features a subtle, immersive soundtrack that includes brilliant sound design elements. In several key scenes the natural sounds of a crickets and frogs chirping along the waterways of the remote island of Chappaquiddick are combined with that iconic computerized pinging sound and the static-ey radio transmissions heard on the televised coverage of NASA’s moon landing which took place the same weekend as the Chappaquiddick incident.
The story unfolds matter-of–fact-ly beginning on a July weekend less than one year after the death of Teddy’s brother, Bobby. Sen. Teddy Kennedy hosts a party for his brother’s former campaign staffers near Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. On that same weekend, the Apollo 11 space mission is headed for the moon, the result of President John F. Kennedy's initiative earlier in the decade. Back on earth things were a little less lofty. Kennedy’s late night, booze infused party was attended by mostly middle-aged married men and single young women, including Kopechne. The writers leave the reason why Kennedy and Kopechne left together in Kennedy’s Oldsmobile Delta 88 ambiguous. Kennedy later denied an affair. But the result was a car accident that Kennedy survived and Kopechne did not. Kennedy failed to report the accident for ten hours and when he did, his story is a little too convenient. Later court testimony revealed the possibility that Kopechne remained alive for hours inside the submerged car and could have been saved had the accident been reported immediately. The movie then depicts the attempt to cover up the crime through political manipulation and public relations strategies. The result is that Kennedy got to keep his senate seat for another 40 years but the scandal was probably the main reason that he was never elected to the presidency. The movie does a fine job of telling this story without sensationalism and depicting how the incident affected Kennedy's political future. Yet, I wanted to know more about Kopechne and the awful effect her death must have had on her loved ones. But unfortunately, as in real life, Mary Jo Kopechne is treated as a bit of an afterthought.
I was most impressed by the recurring shots of an omnipresent moon that seems to mock the younger Kennedy throughout the film, reminding him of his brother's great achievements and his failure to live up to them. Also very effective are the sequences showing the suffocating Kopechne, praying inside the submerged car juxtaposed with Kennedy’s sleepless night in his hotel room.
I came away feeling queasy about the ability of the rich and powerful to escape consequences and the waste of a young life, sacrificed for political expediency. I was reminded that “fake news” and “alternative facts” have a long history in our country. The willingness of the public to be taken in by the cult of personality and celebrity worship is an ongoing phenomenon. “Chappaquiddick” confronts viewers with the question, is our political hero-worship worth the price?