Chappaquiddick

 

            This was the event that probably determined that Ted Kennedy would never be elected President.  But the event itself is still shrouded in mystery, even after all these years.  This film manages to raise a lot of issues, but doesn't really answer any of them.

            Senator Ted Kennedy (played by Australian Jason Clarke) was 37 years old in the summer of 1969, and already the sole surviving son of the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.  The oldest brother, Joe, Jr., died in combat in World War II.  Jack, the next oldest, was assasinated while President, in 1963.  Bobby was assasinated while running for President in 1968.  Ted lived under the shadow of them all.

            On the night of July 18, 1969, Ted Kennedy was helping to throw a party for some “Boiler Room Girls”---so-called because of their passion for campaigning for Bobby Kennedy.  All of the women were single and in their 20's.  The men at the party were all much older, and all except one married.  Ted's wife, Joan, was reportedly back home under doctor's orders for bedrest (during her pregnancy).  Presumably, the young women were being recruited as possible campaigners for Ted's bid for the Presidency, perhaps in 1972.

            What's not in dispute is that sometime late that evening, Ted Kennedy and one of the “boiler room girls,” Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) were driving down a narrow dirt road and the Oldsmobile went over a bridge, and flipped upside down into a pond.  Ted Kennedy managed to escape.  Mary Jo Kopechne did not.

            What is in dispute is exactly how that happened.  Though at a party all evening, Ted Kennedy claimed not to be under the influence of alcohol.  Though in the car late at night with a young single woman (after spending much of the day alone with her), Kennedy emphasized that there was no “immoral relationship.”  Since the coroner ruled death by asphyxiation, not drowning, and the diver who brought up the body claimed that he could have rescued her had he been notified immediately, she apparently ran out of oxygen after struggling to breathe in an air pocket for some undetermined period of time.  Kennedy claimed that he tried to rescue her.  He also claimed that he wandered around in a (drunken?) daze afterwards, uncertain what to do.  He eventually made his way back to the cottage where the party was, enlisted a couple of friends to help him, and they, too, were unsuccessful in rescuing Ms. Kopechne.

            What follows in the film is the “spin doctor” aspect of Kennedy's advisors telling him to be sure to get the body back to her home in New Jersey quickly, in order to prevent a formal inquest.  They told him to arrange for a quick judicial hearing on his crime of leaving the scene of an accident, and plead guilty.  The Kennedy-friendly judge assesses the minimum sentence, two months, and then suspends it, for a year of probation.  Kennedy then appears on national television to explain to the country how he suffered from grief, trauma, shock, and possibly a concussion, and doesn't remember most of the time that expired before he managed to notify the authorities.  The people of Massachusetts continued to elect him as their Senator until his death in 2009, when he was the second most senior Senator.  He ran for President once---in 1980, when he was defeated in the primary by incumbent Jimmy Carter, who was in turn defeated by Ronald Reagan in the general election.

            Bruce Dern's sharp-edged cameo as the aging Joe Kennedy is memorable.  Kate Mara's magnetic allure is obvious in her brief screen time.  But it's hard to like the indecisive, angst-ridden, entitled-celebrity Ted Kennedy portrayed here.  And it's not difficult to understand why America didn't elect him their President.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association