Film review: ‘CHAPPAQUIDDICK’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Chappaquiddick dramatises the events surrounding the tragic incident on July 18 1969 when a car driven by Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island leading to the drowning death of 28-year-old campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne.

The film reconstructs events based largely on transcripts of a 1970 investigation by Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. It suggests that Kennedy (Australia’s Jason Clarke) and Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) left a party so he could drive her to the dock to catch the last ferry but apparently having had a few drinks and looking to avoid the scrutiny of a police deputy, took a wrong turn and flipped the car off a bridge into the water. While the accident has been the subject of numerous books and investigations, plenty of questions remain and these aren’t completely answered here: did Kennedy do enough to try and save Mary Jo Kopechne after freeing himself and why did he wait nine hours before reporting the accident to police?

As a Kennedy and ordained future president there was never a question of Ted simply accepting blame here. With a mix of matter-of-factness and mordant humour the film depicts how the lawyers and spin doctors including Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) swing into action to try and save Kennedy from political annihilation and possible prison time.

The intelligent script from Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan provides potent insights into the mindset of politics and power and in particular the treatment of women by the powerful. Still, this is not as powerful a drama as it could have been as it loses intensity and urgency through some leisurely direction by John Curran (Tracks).   Curran does, however successfully capture the look and feel of the late 60’s and convincingly portrays the privileged world of beachside mansions and yacht regattas the Kennedy’s occupied.

Although he doesn’t look and sound much like Ted Kennedy and his Aussie accent occasionally intrudes, Jason Clarke compellingly depicts a man of extreme wealth and entitlement suddenly finding himself rubbing up against a very ugly reality. He also captures Ted’s self-doubt having always lived in Jack and Bobby’s shadows; Curran notes but thankfully doesn’t over-egg the irony that, as the Chappaquiddick tragedy was unfolding, JFK’s dream of putting a man on the Moon was being realised. The supporting cast are generally fine particularly Ed Helms who departs his usual goofball persona to play Ted’s loyal and apparently honourable cousin and advisor Joe Gargan.

As a well-known story the film doesn’t really offer any revelations so it lacks dramatic high points but as an examination of the American political process and it’s subservience to the wealthy and powerful, it’s a sobering film.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Historical drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): John Curran.

Release date: 10th May 2018.

Running time: 101 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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