Chappaquiddick is a film that strives to take an even-handed look at the tragic events of July 1969 but it’s just not compelling enough of a film. It’s not so much a political film inasmuch as it is one that seeks to take an investigative look.
John Curran, directing from a screenplay written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, takes us back to yet another cursed moment for the Kennedy family. It’s a sad moment for Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) as he lost control of his car following a reunion for Bobby Kennedy’s Boiler Room Girls. What was supposed to be a moment celebrating these six women who worked for the 1968 presidential campaign turned into tragedy when Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) drowned.
The film seeks to examine the events that transpired after the car went off the bridge. That said, not much is learned about who Mary Jo Kopechne is as a person. This is where the script could have been improved as the accident takes place not even 20 minutes into the film. There’s a better film to be made in this account.
As for Senator Kennedy, who passed away in August 2009, Clarke does a solid job to capture the accent as best he could. It’s not an impression of Kennedy but he seeks to make it his own. The film shows the power of the Kennedy family in the days following the accident. Even with the passings of Jack and Bobby, there’s no doubt that Teddy is still living in their shadows. This is shown the best through the interactions with his father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr. (Bruce Dern).
Playing the late Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. in his final months, Oscar nominee Bruce Dern delivers one of the most powerful performances in the film as the dying ambassador. He doesn’t even speak much in the role but it’s a performance that’s strong alone on the basis of even the smallest body gestures–especially those eyes!
There’s some good performances in the film–actor/comedian Jim Gaffigan is unrecognizable in his portrayal of former U.S. Attorney Paul F. Markham. Both Gaffigan and comedian Ed Helms are playing against type in the drama. The two are known for their comedy but this film is one that goes heavy on the drama.
Through it’s storytelling, Chappaquiddick leads to more questions than answers. Why did Senator Ted Kennedy wait nine hours before reporting the accident? The film dispels any rumors that the two had a relationship. If anything, the film introduces one of the awful incidents in the Kennedy family history to a new generation. It’s a sad moment that changed the course of the country’s history. Had this incident not happened, Kennedy would have run for president much earlier than 1980. Thankfully, the screenwriters didn’t write it as a conspiracy thriller. Instead, it serves as a character study of the late senator.
What happened on Chappaquiddick Island is a story that’s best told as a documentary rather than a narrative feature.
DIRECTOR: John Curran
SCREENWRITERS: Taylor Allen & Andrew Logan
CAST: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, and Taylor Nichols with Olivia Thirlby and Bruce Dern