Chappaquiddick starring Jason Clarke and Kate Mara. Picture: Supplied by Transmission Films
Chappaquiddick starring Jason Clarke and Kate Mara. Picture: Supplied by Transmission Films

MOVIE REVIEW: The Kennedy scandal world forgot about

JOE Kennedy was what they called a son-of-a-b**ch.

A cold, uncompromising and ambitious man dogmatically seeking to build an everlasting political empire, he pushed his four sons to succeed on the public stage.

After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968, old Joe only had one son left: Ted. As the youngest son, Ted was never meant to carry all of Joe's hopes but with the deaths of Joe Jr, Jack and Bobby, Ted was the last one left standing.

He carried the burden of the Kennedy name and the expectations that came with it, from those within his family and from the American public. So when he was involved in a fatal car crash on Chappaquiddick Island in the summer of 1969, protecting Ted Kennedy's presidential prospects was key.

That context is important in understanding what may have happened the night 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne drowned after the car Kennedy was driving flipped and crashed into the water.

There are so many inconsistencies, cover-ups and smoke screens surrounding the events, you can never be sure of the truth.


Australian actor Jason Clarke as a very convincing Ted Kennedy
Australian actor Jason Clarke as a very convincing Ted Kennedy

A satisfying, slow-burn character study, John Curran's Chappaquiddick is the first non-documentary film based on the incident. Lesser known than many of the other tragic stories plaguing America's royal family, it did, in many ways, limit Ted Kennedy's career and added to the myth of the so-called "Kennedy Curse".

Kennedy (Australian actor Jason Clarke) was hosting a party on Chappaquiddick Island, a reunion of sorts for the "Boiler Room Girls", women who worked for Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign.

Among the guests were Kopechne (Kate Mara), Kennedy cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Massachusetts US Attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan).

Kennedy and Kopechne leave the party, both a little drunk, and drive off in his car. After a stop and a deep-and-meaningful, the Oldsmobile veers off a bridge and end up in the water, upside down. Kennedy manages to free himself but Kopechne drowns.

Kennedy doesn't report the incident for nine hours. What happens (and why) in those nine hours is what the very watchable Chappaquiddick is hinged on.


Kate Mara as the tragic Mary Kopechne
Kate Mara as the tragic Mary Kopechne


In the aftermath, Ted has to wrestle with doing the right and doing what it takes to fulfil his father's demands - there's an inherent tension between his moral code and his dynastic burden, and the question of whether you can become a great man and still be a good man.

On one side is cousin Joe Gargan, a lawyer who grew up in the Kennedy household, and on the other is a stroke-ridden Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) and the cabal of fixers who scheme and plot to spin the death so Ted comes out the victim, presidential prospects intact.

It's the age-old angel and devil on your shoulder scenario.

But the film is not a play-by-play thriller or a stirring biopic - it's a deftly executed examination of the man at the centre of the scandal and the psychological scars that come from being a Kennedy scion. In this, Clarke does a wonderful job at conveying the conflict brewing inside Ted - entirely convincing as a man caught in an untenable situation.

It's surprising that the Chappaquiddick incident hasn't really been mined for dramatic purposes before (there's a Joyce Carol Oates fiction book that was inspired by the event), because it so perfectly encapsulates what it means when your life doesn't belong to just you and the idea that while your family can save you, they can also damn you.

Rating: ★★★½

Chappaquiddick is in cinemas now.

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