Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Chappaquiddick

Jason Clarke captures the late Senator Ted Kennedy at the lowest of his many low ebbs.

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Entertainment Studios

The new movie Chappaquiddick is a political bombshell 50 years delayed. We've always had most of the facts of the case, but there was a longtime disinclination to get too exercised about them. However, times have changed, and now the story reads a lot differently. But since the infinitely annoying Kennedy family still has its benighted admirers, director John Curran has wisely taken a straightforward approach to recounting what happened on and after that summer night in 1969 when Senator Ted Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, drove his car into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, just off Martha's Vineyard, and then walked away, leaving a 28-year-old woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown (or possibly to asphyxiate, gasping desperately for two hours at an ever-diminishing bubble of air inside the overturned vehicle). There's no need for partisan exaggeration in this story; the undisputed facts are awful enough.

At the time, the Kennedy family was America's—and especially the American media's—favored repository of sorrow and dreams. The first of the family's four brothers to be groomed for the presidency, Joseph Junior, was killed on a war mission in 1944. The second, John, won the 1960 presidential election, but was assassinated at Dallas in 1963. The third brother, Robert, was himself assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968, while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

That left Teddy, the last and least of the Kennedy brothers. Bounced out of Harvard in his first year for cheating and pulled over on many a wild automotive spree, Teddy was a shameless womanizer and a devoted drinker. (Speculating about the root cause of the man's never-ending personal disarray some years later, Richard Nixon asked Henry Kissinger, "Do you think it's the booze?") Teddy wasn't equipped to preside over a co-op council, let alone the United States of America. But he was a Kennedy, and so by the lights of his grovelers on the big-government left, the office had to be his by right.

To play this complicated character in all of his craven weakness and exasperating sense of entitlement, Curran cast the Australian actor Jason Clarke (Mudbound, Zero Dark Thirty). Clarke doesn't bear much of a physical resemblance to Teddy, but he completely captures the inner cringe of a man who knows he'll never live up to his legendary family but who demands the boot-licking adulation they feel is their due anyway. His Teddy is both a melancholy figure and, at the same time, an asshole.

The story begins on the night of July 18, 1969. With his pregnant wife Joan confined to bed at the Kennedy compound some 40 miles away, Teddy has organized a party for the "Boiler Room Girls"—six young, single women who had worked on Bobby Kennedy's last campaign. Also in attendance, along with Teddy, are a complementary number of other older, married men, among them Teddy's cousin/lawyer/fixer Joe Gargan (Ed Helms, playing it straight) and Gargan's friend and fellow government lawyer Paul Markham (standup comic Jim Gaffigan, similarly serious).

Amid all the drinking and happy chatter, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) notices Teddy sitting on a couch looking blue. She joins him, they chat, and soon they leave the party together, Teddy with a bottle of liquor in his hand. Curran doesn't suggest any sexual connection between these two—does he really have to? (Teddy told other partiers he was driving Mary Jo to catch a ferry, but she didn't take her purse with her when they left.)

Disoriented and possibly blotto on the dark island roads, Teddy before long finds himself driving off a narrow wooden bridge with no guard rails. He manages to escape from the car after it settles on its roof at the bottom of the pond. He makes his way back up onto the bridge and stares down in stunned despair at the car's headlights glowing eerily in the water. Then, in the first of many stupid moves, Teddy leaves the scene. He walks back to the party house, where he draws Gargan and Markham outside and tells them, "I'm not going to be president." His two friends tell him he has to call the police. Perhaps understandably, Teddy doesn't want to.

Director Curran gets all the New England seashore details right: the gentle creak of old shake-shingle houses, sailboat spinnakers swelling in the wind, frogsong in the summer night. The story is naturally fascinating, but it gains resonance from being anchored in a very particular place—in Kennedy Country. (The movie was shot in Massachusetts and Mexico.)

After his first refusal to call the police, Teddy returns to the inn where he's staying, changes clothes, and at two in the morning attempts to establish a semblance of an alibi by asking a random man outside what time it is. As the day gets underway, we watch him trying to fabricate a cover story with noted Kennedy-whisperer Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols). Then we see him having – of all things—a happy brunch with some friends. Gargan and Markham arrive at this repast and are appalled: Teddy still hasn't notified police about the fatal accident (a total of nine hours would pass before he did) – and now, infuriatingly, he blames Gargan for not doing so himself.

Teddy is soon in full tailspin. He works up a self-serving statement about leaving the scene of the accident ("I was exhausted, in a state of shock") and gives it to the local police chief, who is inclined to see things the Kennedy way. Soon the press is clamoring. Old Joe Kennedy circles the family advisors to bail out his gormless son. These eminent codgers immediately determine to get control of Mary Jo's body—there must be no autopsy (there never was). They put out a story that Teddy has a serious concussion and has been sedated; unfortunately, reporters quickly determine that no doctor would ever prescribe sedatives for a concussed patient—it could be fatal. Next, desirous of sympathy, Teddy decides to attend Mary Jo's funeral wearing an unnecessary neck brace; however, the effect of this is diminished by his constant head-swiveling as he peers about at his surroundings.

Justice does catch up with Teddy Kennedy in the end. A week after the fatal accident, Teddy pleads guilty to unlawfully leaving the scene of Mary Jo's excruciating death, and a local court sentences him to two months in jail. Then the court suspends the sentence. There should be a Bob Dylan song about this.

The movie concludes with Teddy's national TV address that night—an aria of fulsome lies and flatulent insincerity that sets a new standard for such things. Rather than announcing his resignation from the Senate (Joe Gargan's advice), Teddy says he'll leave it up to viewers to decide whether he should stay on the job or go. The viewers, bless their lumpy heads, turned out to want this lovable character to stay right where he was, and for the next 40 years—the next 40 years!—Massachusetts voters kept sending Teddy Kennedy back to Congress, where he became "The Lion of the Senate" even as his behavior grew more and more deplorable.

In a famous 1989 GQ profile, writer Michael Kelly likened the late-period Teddy to "an aging Irish boyo clutching a bottle and diddling a blonde." Nothing ever changed with him. But the world changed. And looking back now, even onetime supporters must surely see him as he really was.

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  1. The voters of Mass. have now replaced this blowhard with another. Alas, with the advent of cheap and available DNA testing, she too has her own Chappaquiddick.

    1. Let’s hope her inevitable presidential run ends up in a Trail of Tears.

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    2. Yup. Any peccadillo any liberal has ever been blamed for is equivalent to actually killing a woman and lying about it.

    3. There’s even another Kennedy to boot. He seems pretty milquetoast, but the Kennedy name will probably carry him to the Senate in a few years.

  2. This movie sounds too depressing for me, and I’ve seen Requiem for a Dream.

  3. Nice review, and use of the word “gormless.” Mr. Loder has a fine vocabulary.

  4. “We’ve always had most of the facts of the case, but there was a longtime disinclination to get too exercised about them.”

    What?

    1. …among the kind of people who make Hollywood movies.

      …among Massachusetts voters.

      …among the kind of people who called him the Lion of the Senate.

      1. “Justice does catch up with Teddy Kennedy in the end.”

        Again, I say “what?”

        1. Maybe his wrist was extra-sensitive to all that slapping.

          1. In a world where Donald Trump is in the Oval Office and Dennis Rodman is the de facto ambassador to North Korea, there is no room for sarcasm.

      2. A meager attempt to discredit the Liar of the Senate. Forget the tramp Kopechne. He was our CHAMPION of women’s rights. You can’t make an omelet without cracking the occasional egg.

        1. “You can’t make an omelet without cracking the occasional egg.”

          Ted Kennedy crashed a tank through a dozen semi trailers loaded with eggs.

    2. Only evil Rethuglicans get exercised over the death of Mary Jo. Right thinking Democrats know their talking points and stick too them.

  5. Senator Ted Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, drove his car into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, just off Martha’s Vineyard, and then walked away, leaving a 28-year-old woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown (or possibly to asphyxiate, gasping desperately for two hours at an ever-diminishing bubble of air inside the overturned vehicle).

    HOW ABOUT A SPOILER ALERT, YOU BASTARD!!!

    1. WELL KNOWN HISTORICAL EVENTS, YOU OBLIVIOT!!!

      1. I got the joke. Welcome to Hit & Run.

  6. “These eminent codgers immediately determine to get control of Mary Jo’s body?there must be no autopsy (there never was).”

    Don’t forget the Kopechne family, which successfully opposed digging up their daughter to do an autopsy.

    Maybe they figured it would have been a lot of grief, just to have Kennedy let off the hook again?

  7. Poor Kopechne spared us this man in the White House.

    1. Should probably be a monument in her honor, or an aircraft carrier with her name on it. People who have done much less have received much more.

      1. Does this mean that someday we will have an aircraft carrier named after Trump because he saved us from the Hillary?

        1. An entire flotilla would fall short of this honor.

        2. Only if outfitted with beautiful steam catapults.

        3. There is a joke about gold plated toilets in there somewhere, but heck if I can suss it out.

    2. I always say Mary Jo took one for the team.

  8. Guess I’ll have to see the movie, if only to verify/disprove my impressions from watching the trailers. I wasn’t impressed. The Teddy character seems unemotional. If only Peter Lorre were still alive.

    1. The Teddy character seems unemotional.

      Sounds about right, then, considering he was yucking it up with his bros within hours of drowning a girl.

  9. Let me say…if this happened in the Deep South, it would have been cited as a true-life Southern Gothic horror story.

    1. If this happened in the deep south, Massholes would be pointing to it as an example of political corruption common in those backwards undeucated rednecks.

      1. If this had happened in the Deep South, the girl’s family would have made sure Kennedy didn’t live out the week.

  10. Teddy Kennedy was like a corpse or a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon pumped up by the faith of millions in the Kennedy myth. For decades, hundreds of bright, dedicated liberals flocked to work for a man who was, basically, a soulless, entitled schmuck. I remember listening to his speech to his constituents when I was in Vietnam (it was broadcast live; I think I was shaving at the time) and thinking “this is worst crap anyone ever said”.

  11. I’m still waiting for the John F. #MeToo docudrama.

  12. I feel it’s important to leave this here, illustrating how Fake News predates Donald Drumpf by multiples of decades.

    1. Note the date on that cover- 1965. TK was injured in a small place crash and had a bad back for the rest of his life as a result. The neck brace was phony, the back brace four years prior was not.

    2. That is about a broken back from a plane crash, years before the Chappaquiddick incident.

  13. Has anything changed in the intervening 40 years? Well, the luster has come off the Kennedy’s a bit, but I think it’s safe to say Chelsea could kill someone in the middle of times square and the media apparatchik would merely comment on her outfit.

    1. So you’re saying 50 years from now there will be a movie called Chappaqua?

    2. Well, we had a president that drone-murdered children for about 8 years and… yeah, nothing’s changed.

  14. Can’t understand the Ted Kennedy story?or understand reactions to it?without understanding tribalism. Kennedy worship in Massachusetts was mostly Irish tribalism. That provided enough electoral clout?and still does, probably?to get anyone from that family elected to almost any office within the gift of Massachusetts. So Ted Kennedy advantaged himself by that.

    Likewise, the comments above are what you expect from an enemy tribe. In neither case do those estimates encompass full reality, or even come close.

    For instance, among non-Irish liberals I knew, every one of them repudiated Kennedy after Chappaquiddick, and never fully came back. Some decided later on that Kennedy had genuine accomplishments to set against his earlier disgrace. They also re-valued him in some ways like Trump fans do with their icon?as a hold-your-nose adversary for others who were worse.

    Less tolerant others, including me, just thought Kennedy a public embarrassment, and wanted him out of public life. That view was summarized in a remark by a distinguished professor. When asked about Ted Kennedy in a seminar, he replied, “He killed a girl and lied about it.” Not another word. He left it at that.

    As so often among right wing tribalists, you can tell by their remarks that to their discredit they target not reality, but a figment of imagination?which discredits also the remarks. If right wingers used nuanced criticism instead, even adversaries would give them more credence.

    1. I really don’t think nuance should be required for you to more fully reject Ted Kennedy. When normal people do what he did, we don’t just consider them “public embarrassments,” we consider them murderers or, at best, people who’ve committed manslaughter. The reason people still care about this is because the media and his party did their best to cover it up and push through it as quickly as possible. It reveals something very ugly about both.

      Blaming tribalism for his “achievements” and attacks upon his character is ridiculous. He was a bad person and it should be recognized.

    2. So, your main lesson for us out of this whole sordid and shameful episode is…right-wing criticism needs more nuance ?

      That sounds bold not only as deflection, but as redirection. You could even say shameless. Hell, you could even call it “Kennedy-esque”.

      I call it grotesque.

    3. Well the real tragedy here is that nobody bothered to assassinate this piece of shit like they did his piece of shit brothers. How’s that for nuance?

  15. As the recipient of a degree in Business and Marketing I often reflect on my education with respect to what passes for the college experience today. I recall being schooled to “know your market ” in order to successfully move your product. Yet I’m forever awed at the performance of Democrat operatives who have artfully succeeded in selling Ted Kennedy and the Clintons as advocates for women despite any and all evidence.

  16. The best thing on screen about Ted & the other Kennedys was the TV series Smallville. Gough & Millar did it hilariously.

    1. What’s mayor Quimby, chopped liver?

  17. Reading the review, it’s pretty obvious that the movie is about the Rethuglicans withholding infrastructure spending causing a notably inadequate bridge from being brought up to government standard and not allowing common sense regulation to be passed to make sure that cars will allow people to survive the occasional accidental submersion and battling universal healthcare so that poor victimized Ted couldn’t get the help he so desperately needed and that Mary Jo couldn’t be brought back from the dead.

    1. ” allowing common sense regulation to be passed to make sure that cars will allow people to survive the occasional accidental submersion ”

      I recall back in the early 70s there was an ad for Volkswagen, which was reputed to float on water. The ad said “If Ted Kennedy had been driving a Volkswagen, there never would have been a Chappaquiddick.”

      I think that ad got de-platformed pretty quick afterwards.

      1. It was a parody ad in the National Lampoon. The punchline was even better honed:

        http://www.yourememberthat.com…..sqM2YjwbIU

        The car company gave them some legal shit over it, I believe.

        1. Ah. Indeed, legal shit mentioned at link.

  18. If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.

    I can’t decide if that heaping pile of shit is satire but apparently The Huffington Post has it all figured out.

    Poe’s Law writ large.

    1. Reading the original (lengthy) article, the comment is made with 100% seriousness, and is not satire.

      An appalling display.

  19. Yeah, there will be many lessons people want to take away from this movie that have nothing to do with the one that really matters.

    If you want to call politicians on their shit, you don’t then get to reelect a murderer a couple of handful of times and then act like you deserve better. The immorality of the American public is a hug part of the problem in modern politics.

  20. The people of Mass. loved Teddy not just because of his last name, but because he was able to deliver the goods.
    I find it deeply ironic that prog women were, until very recently, more than happy to indulge the fantasies of male politicians in order to further their agenda.

  21. We have a regretablel penchant for sending dimwitted politicians to the Senate in our state. Just have a look at the other MA Senator, a man who has not lived in MA for years. A do nothing place holder. And then, after Brown, not a winner but not your run-of-the-mill Soviet Democrat, we send dear Lizzie. Karl Marx in drag. We should be ashamed.

    1. regrettable…

  22. All these years and we’ve never heard a peep from the Kopechne family. Bought off? Scared off?

    1. They’ve made some comment in the past. I think both parents are dead now, but mostly since then they just didn’t want to be known as some sort of headline.

  23. I mean is “underway” really a compound word?

    1. I dunno. The original is under weigh, which means that the anchor has been raised and is now a weight on the ship, which in now headed somewhere. The song “Anchors A Weigh” preserves this patina of antiquity.

  24. I wonder what Mary Jo Kopechne knew about Hillary Clinton?

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  26. I am glad the dirt bag, Ted Kennedy, is in that bag right now.

  27. In today’s political climate, JFK would be considered as some virulent right winger. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” would be derided as a white privilege nonsense. And he was a anti communist crusader, which is a big no no in Hillary land.

    There was a time in America (I suppose) where a president not from my political party represented most of my values and it was possible for me to cross the aisle and vote for that man. As recently as the 90’s the south voted for Clinton. Now there’s no chance on hell I would ever vote for a democrat.

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  29. Who are we to judge? Have not all of us, at some time, taken a woman who is not our wife on a drunken
    ride in the dark, plunged the car into a channel and left her to axphisiate while we, walking back to the
    party to joke with our friends, failed to call the police for more than 9 hours while trying to come up with a lame alibi and marshall the forces of our powerful, ruthless family to bail us out in order to protect our sacred right to the presidency of the United States?

    That’s what I thought.

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  31. I can kind of relate to how the voters felt. For 40 years we’ve had Nixon, the second Quaker Republican, seeing to it that the IRS pays the media to ignore the libertarian Party. To those voters it was therefore a choice between losing because another nationalsocialist republican or losing to elect another looter who happened to be a drunken coward… but THEIR drunken coward, bless his heart!

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