Among the most morally murky episodes in late-20th-century US politics—and that is a crowded field—was the drowning of campaign specialist Mary Jo Kopechne in what would become known as the Chappaquiddick Incident. Kopechne was trapped in a car that Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, following a night of festivities. This sombre, suspenseful recreation of the accident and its aftermath, directed by John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil), invites us to speculate on how this shameful scandal came to be.
The Kennedy dynasty had lost three heirs apparent by 1969, and Ted (Jason Clarke) was, at the time, the family’s last hope to carry their name and ambitions into the upper echelons of US politics. Kennedy patriarch Joe (Bruce Dern, Nebraska), however, always considered his youngest son a ne’er-do-well—and he never let Ted forget it. The party on Chappaquiddick reunited the “Boiler Room Girls” who had served on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, among them Mary Jo (Kate Mara, Stone of Destiny). Ted whisks Mary Jo away for a reckless moonlight drive that ends in tragedy. But the more profound malfeasance begins after the drowning—itself dramatized here in harrowing detail—when a battalion of spin doctors gets to work on covering up the incident, using the Apollo 11 moon landing as a distraction.
What makes Chappaquiddick such a brilliant historical drama is the way it focuses on moment-by-moment choices instead of suggesting some overarching conspiracy. This is an unsettling film about the way power strives to protect itself while bystanders are left by the wayside.
“Jason Clarke opts for a more low-key approach to Teddy Kennedy, eschewing a big accent or showy mannerisms, and fully disappears into the role. It’s his finest work yet, and proof of his ability to excel given the right material.” (Kate Erbland, IndieWire)
“Whether or not events actually unfolded this way, the story the film tells is an interesting and complicated character study, with something to say about the corrosive effects of power and privilege on both the innocent and the guilty.” (A.O. Scott, The New York Times)
“The movie is avidly told and often suspenseful, but it’s really a fascinating study of how corruption in America works. It sears with its relevance.” (Owen Gleiberman, Variety)