For an audience member it helps to have a someone to sympathize with when watching a movie. This film’s sole sympathetic character is gone early on and we are left trying to rationalize the motives of a self-centered drunk who has committed manslaughter. The drunk happens to be Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy. It’s a long slog for the audience. There is a point where you realize that America would have believed anything out of Ted Kennedy’s mouth perhaps out of a profound guilt for the assassination of his brothers. Through this, he got a pass on the manslaughter of Mary Jo Kopechne. In 2018, making a movie about her life would have been more apropos. After all, what happened at Chappaquiddick and Kennedy’s subsequent life has been discussed and written about ad nauseam.
Mary Jo Kopechne was dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. That’s what “the cause” referred to in the film is. She lived in Montgomery, Alabama for a year and was an active part of the Movement. As much as “the cause” was the shield Kennedy and his team of lawyers/mad men/diplomats hid behind to force his exoneration, Mary Jo Kopechne was a true believer.
I thought the film did a lot of things correctly, the death of Kopechne was handled deftly and painfully. The juxtaposition of Ted turning the light off in his hotel room while Mary Jo recited the Hail Mary and Our Father in the air bubble that remained of the submerged car was haunting and powerful. But the rest of the film tells us what we know. That Kennedy’s statement of what happened doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Not even various versions of it told in the film make much sense. Except to say that a cover up occurred and that Kennedy, having driven off a bridge drunk, unable to save Mary Jo, if he even tried, feared he would have been imprisoned and left the scene. Ted’s remorse is always about how he is seen in the eyes of his father and never about the innocent life that he took. When he reads a nationally televised statement, he chooses to seek forgiveness but not announce his resignation.
The film, though successful in being period accurate and in delivering some scope with aerial shots and a regatta scene, soon becomes a suffocating exercise in long phone calls and cramped rooms. Pretty early on I was left to ask, why should I care if he gets off or not — I know he gets off — the damage is done. More karma than irony, as Ted’s presidential dreams are dashed by Mary Jo’s death, his brothers’ greatest aspiration, a successful lunar landing, occurrs simultaneously.
Unlike another political film which we saw last week, the dark, absurdist drama, The Death of Stalin, the acting in Chappaquiddick never comes to life. If the intention was understatement, then the statement was entirely buried. Like the story itself, the acting seemed to be simply going through the motions. Unlike in The Death of Stalin, I was never wondering what’s going to happen next. That sense of curiosity and intrigue is something else the audience deserves and expects from a film that purports to be a narrative drama.
This film would be a winner if screened for an ethics class but outside of that I would tack away from from Chappaquiddick as hard as possible.