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.