The 1969 Chappaquiddick incident—in which the late Senator Ted Kennedy took a late-night drive with his brother’s campaign staffer Mary Jo Kopechne, drove off a bridge in Martha’s Vineyard, and fled the crash site without reporting Kopechne’s drowning for 10 hours—is the definition of an abuse of political privilege. Kennedy eventually ended up with a two-month suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident. His admission of guilt damaged his presidential aspirations, though he weathered the scrutiny well enough to stay in the Senate for decades, becoming a beloved figure in the Democratic party, before dying in 2009. Nonetheless, the incident is a public stain that’s impossible to dismiss in the career of a generationally respected man.
John Curran’s new film, Chappaquiddick, which dramatizes the car crash and the days that followed, is a damningly even-handed work, a sober reconstruction that slowly, but surely, digs into the queasy realities of scandal management. The romantic myth of the Kennedy family clearly helped Ted (played by a nervy Jason Clarke) persevere in the public eye, as did lingering sympathy following the assassinations of his brothers John and Robert. But Curran is more interested in the rot beneath the Kennedy sheen. This is a surprisingly critical film that portrays the incident not as a shocking tragedy, but as a reprehensible crime, framing the Kennedy mythos as a battered shield its protagonist ducked behind.
Chappaquiddick is an intentionally drab and depressing viewing experience; at a relatively short 101 minutes it still feels slowly paced. Perhaps that’s because the crime at its center is an internal one: an omission of duty, an action not taken. After his car careened off the bridge into a tidal channel, Kennedy made it to the surface and then swam down trying to free Kopechne (Kate Mara). Failing to do that, he eventually swam to shore, sat on the beach for 15 minutes, and then walked back to the party he and Kopechne had departed from together. He then returned to the scene with his cousin Joe Gargan (played by Ed Helms) and his friend Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), but they, too, failed to retrieve Kopechne. Kennedy then swam across the channel and into town, returned to his hotel, changed, and slept. He only reported the crash, and the fact that he’d fled the scene, the next day, after the car had been discovered by fishermen and police had begun investigating.
The facts of the incident are awful to consider, even now, but Curran’s straightforward presentation does nothing to tip the viewer against Kennedy beyond presenting those widely known facts. The most chilling moment of Chappaquiddick is the most mundane: the shot of a still-drenched Kennedy sitting silently on the beach, perhaps in a state of shock, perhaps considering just what this will mean for his political career. The horrible optics of the incident—the fact that the married Kennedy was in a car with a much younger, unmarried woman, the fact that he had been drinking—are instantly apparent. But Curran mostly leaves it to the audience to decide how much that mattered to the senator in those crucial early hours.
Clarke, one of the best stone-faced actors working today (along with Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton), gives an incredibly tamped-down performance, one that only hints at the Kennedy charm that buoyed Ted and his brothers. This is a man haunted not just by the deaths of his siblings, but also by their looming legacies, and by the expectations of the Kennedy “Camelot” image. “I’m not going to be president,” Ted gruffly tells Gargan at one point, but it’s hard to tell if the senator cares. “You’re gonna survive this,” Gargan assures him, and the audience knows he’s right, which makes the onscreen re-creation of Kopechne’s death that much harder to bear.
The first half of Chappaquiddick, which focuses on the immediate aftermath of the crash and the haphazard ways Kennedy and his pals work to ignore its seriousness, is grimly mesmerizing. The second half, in which the Kennedy family machine takes control and works to save Ted’s reputation, is more of a slog. Bruce Dern appears as Ted’s wheelchair-bound father, Joseph, a terrifying specter who slaps and bullies his son into preserving the family’s standing. Taylor Nichols and Clancy Brown contribute reliable character actor work as Ted Sorensen and Robert McNamara, close advisers of John F. Kennedy’s who helped brief Ted on how to face the press and avoid going to jail. As the cocoon of Camelot begins to envelop Ted, Curran shifts his attention to Gargan, who eventually broke with the family over the incident. Helms, with his pained, compassionate performance, becomes the audience surrogate. He watches in disbelief as a tragic death morphs into a PR strategy session, which culminates in an impassioned TV address Kennedy performed to shore up his image.
The way Chappaquiddick transforms into something approaching an indictment is interesting to consider. It’s never easy to dramatize such a well-known public figure, but it’s harder still to concisely lay out a case for their moral negligence. Curran manages it by never resorting to the more theatrical melodrama one might expect from a tale of the Kennedys, but that, in turn, makes Chappaquiddick sometimes painfully dreary to watch. It’s a film looking to challenge America’s gauzy perception of the country’s most famous political family, loaded with all the bleakness that task requires.