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‘Chappaquiddick’ Rightly Casts Ted Kennedy as Movie Villain

RCL movie critic finds historical drama fits these modern #metoo times.

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The facts behind the new movie Chappaquiddick were always as clear as they were ugly.

Sometime before midnight on July 18, 1969, Senator Edward M. Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick, MA. He got out and made it to shore. The woman in the passenger seat, Mary Jo Kopechne of Berkeley Heights, N.J., did not.

Kennedy walked back to the party they’d just come from, and instead of calling authorities, brought two friends back to the crash. They later said they dove in and tried to free Kopechne, but could not pry the car doors open. Afterward, Kennedy went back to his hotel in Edgartown, MA., and went to sleep.

Ten hours after the accident, after phoning friends for advice, Kennedy finally called the police. They had already found the car, and pulled Kopechne’s body from the water. According to testimony at the inquest, she had probably suffocated as the air had slowly bubbled out of the car. It would have taken her several hours to die.

This is the historical record, and also the basis of Chappaquiddick, a drama from the very good director John Curran. It is an old story. But in this era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, it seems particularly modern, too.

Because it’s a story of powerful men, and powerless “girls.” And how that unequal relationship almost always ends up playing out – coldly, cruelly, brutally – with serious problems papered over and bad press carefully spun.

It is definitely not a tale of Camelot, the “Kennedy curse” or even Ted Kennedy’s long and undeniably loyal service in the Senate. Those wanting those stories will have to look elsewhere.

This story, instead, is a profile in cowardice.

Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne (Claire Folger / Entertainment Studios)

It’s the grim portrait of a damaged 37-year-old princeling – the perpetually overlooked and underperforming baby brother – and how his futile fight for his father’s respect led him to damage others and leave loyal courtiers to clean up the mess.

It’s a quiet, brooding film, with little flash or fury (even the fatal car crash is handled perfunctorily). Curran – whose films include such strong and criminally under-seen dramas as We Don’t Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil and Stone – is interested first and foremost in character.

He sets the time and the place – the boozy ’60s summer-house parties, with canned beer and bare feet and Top 40 radio. And he gets some lovely shots, many from godlike, overhead angles (a boat cutting through the water like a knife, Kopechne’s pale watery corpse, stretched out like some spurned sacrifice.)

But mostly, he focuses his camera on how people act without thinking, and how their tiny cruelties chip away at other people’s self-esteem.

Like the way old Joe Kennedy – frozen by a massive stroke into perpetual, petrified rage – still fixes his youngest son with a baleful blue eye. Or the way that son, when he stumbles into trouble, simply expects everyone around him – weary wife, loyal cousin, besotted admirers – to save him from himself.

Jason Clarke has had a busy, but problematic career in movies – there’s something hard and unmoving and mask-like about his face that makes him seem duplicitous even when he’s playing the hero. But it suits this unsparing portrait, and he smartly settles for just giving a feel of the famous accent rather than trying to copy it precisely. Even better is an unrecognizable Bruce Dern as old Joe, a man wrapped up in decades of vast ambitions and bottomless pain.

And particularly good is Kate Mara, who plays Mary Jo Kopechne with a quiet melancholy. In the world of Washington politics, her idealism makes her a danger — a woman who not only wants to do the right thing, but the good thing – and her empathy makes her vulnerable. Although the men here can quickly forget her, we cannot.

Kennedy fans – and the veritable industry that’s sprung up to feed their aching nostalgia – may be startled by the cynicism of the film. Yet, in the end, the screenplay, by newcomers Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen, is so sympathetic to Kopechne — so reluctant to reduce this young teacher and activist to a “party girl” cliché — that it actually goes a little easy on Kennedy.

Certainly it refuses to disinter old gossip about what his relationship with Kopechne really was. (Although he was supposedly giving her a lift back to her hotel, she left her purse and room key back at the party.) Perhaps the filmmakers felt downplaying those rumors was a good way to still protect Kopechne from dirt and whispers and shaming.

But this strong, smart, sensitive woman needs no protecting. She did nothing wrong. It’s she who was wronged – and by the same male loyalties and political expediencies that are as real today, and as ugly, as they were nearly 50 years ago.