Film Review: Chappaquiddick

This docudrama about the effective end of the Kennedy political dynasty was informative, interesting but ultimately fell a little flat

Political junkies like me will no doubt flock to see Chappaquiddick, John Curran’s retelling of the fateful night Edward ‘Teddy’ Kennedy was struck down by ‘the Curse of Camelot’ — a retelling that has no fear in reconstructing events that point the finger squarely at Teddy’s actions…or rather alleged ‘inaction’…on the night Mary Jo Kopechne lost her life in the waters of the Chappaquiddick river.

Lost her life because, as the film contends, Teddy was drunk and driving recklessly, and even after veering off the road into the Chappaquiddick River, leaving Kopechne trapped in the submerged vehicle, Kennedy acted in such a fashion that made her doubly culpable for her death.

And while the incident was clearly not fatal to Kennedy himself in the way the life-ending assassinations of his brothers John F and Robert were, it proved just as lethal a blow in terms of him ever reaching the throne his family seemed destined to rule from — the US Presidency.

(Teddy’s Senatorial political career certainly recovered, and he went on to serve faithfully for near-on another 40 years until his death of a brain tumour in August 2009, recovering his reputation sufficiently to become a respected progressive in US politics.)

The film has been pieced together on the back of a variety of articles and books following the grand-jury-ordered two-day investigation in 1970, which threw doubt on Kennedy’s statement and claims about the events of July 19,1969.

I really liked the way the film handled this. Deception is such a recurring theme throughout both the incident (if you believe those rumours) and the film, and given we are led back to the events several times, and offered different accounts of what ‘happened’, this weaves a nice web of confusion in the viewer’s mind about what actually did happen.

Chappaquiddick offer us a simple take on this —that, regardless of the finer details of what did or didn’t happen leading up to the crash, a man made a terrible mistake that cost a woman’s life and his own ‘higher calling’.

Curran handles the material well, shooting the drama of the night through the chaos and uncertainty that comes with the fear Teddy (played respectably by Aussie actor Jason Clarke) has of failing his family name and domineering father as he lives in the shadow of his older brothers ghosts.

Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan pull some fine punches with their script, attacking the establishment of the time’s unfettered desire to protect the Kennedys at all cost, even, as the case might be, when the cost was the truth. They also blend in some poignant moments of Teddy and the father who clearly saw him as the lesser of the clan.

And yet it is also the script that ultimately lets the film down to a degree, glazing the story over with a more melodramatic ‘film of the week’ made-for-TV feel to it than something you’d want for the big screen.

Ed Helms stands out as Joe Gargan, Kennedy’s close cousin, whose role in the incident is built in as the voice of conscience, something he apparently tried to be over the week around the crash in attempting to get Kennedy to do the right thing.

And Bruce Dern does so little but so much playing the crippled Joe Kennedy, Teddy’s father.

Ultimately, Chappaquiddick is one of those films that students of history and politics (and conspiracy theories!) are likely to enjoy but that the non-political-junkie cinema goer might find a little bland.

Chappaquiddick will screen as part of the Palace Cinemas’ APIA Young at Heart Seniors Festival, and is scheduled for general release in May 2018.

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Young Apprentice AKA PB

Young Apprentice AKA PB

Writer, editor, content dude, digital disruptor. Politics. Arts. Tech. Travel. Food. Film. The Force. Digital Nomad. Citizen of the universe. Coffee. Always.