CHAPPAQUIDDICK. Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Bruce Dern, Ed Helms, and Jim Gaffigan. Directed by John Curran. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 106 min.

This American, factually-based drama is an engrossing account of a highly political incident. In July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car into a canal, in which his passenger, a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, died tragically.

At the time, Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), was the US Senator from Massachusetts. He left a campaign party late at night at a rented cottage on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, with his campaign strategist, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). On the way to the ferry, he drove his car off a bridge into water, and managed to escape from the overturned vehicle. Fleeing the scene, he walked back to the party, where he informed Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), about what happened. Both unsuccessfully tried to rescue Mary Jo.

Gargan and Markham immediately advised the Senator to turn himself into the police. Instead, a confused Ted Kennedy spent the rest of the night at a hotel, and had breakfast with his associates the following morning. The submerged car was found later in the morning, and Kopechne’s body was recovered from it. Kennedy turned himself in at the insistence of Gargan and Markham, and travelled to the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port to tell his father, Joseph Kennedy Sr. (Bruce Dern), who considered that his son had disgraced the Kennedy name. Subsequently, Gargan resigned, and Senator Kennedy apologised publicly for his actions after Mary Jo’s funeral. The film concludes by telling us that Kennedy served with distinction in the US Senate for 40 years.

Few who lived through the late 60’s will fail to remember the Chappaquiddick incident. It had profound moral and political significance in US presidential history. It exposed the enormous reach of political power that existed at the time, the influence of America’s most celebrated family, and the vulnerability of the family’s youngest son, whose actions shamed it. The incident marked the end of the political dynasty of the Kennedy family that had endured the assassination  of John F. Kennedy in Dallas Texas in 1963, and the subsequent assassination of his younger brother, Robert, in 1968, who aspired to replace him.

One of the ironies of US politics is that a person widely thought to behave so badly in 1969 rose to become an unbeatable and respected US Senator in the years to follow - but never President.  Kennedy’s 8-hour delay in reporting the accident destroyed completely all hopes of another Kennedy Presidency. There is no certain explanation of why Kennedy did not call for help, and the film doesn’t attempt to give it - it keeps its focus on a powerful, ambitious man who behaved  erratically and irresponsibly. The ultimate political irony is that the people in Kennedy’s electorate re-elected him to the Senate up until the time of his death in 2009, the Democratic party eventually bestowing on him affectionately the label, “Lion of the Senate”. The mystery of Chappaquiddick remains, but the film gives a fascinating look at American politics at a key moment in political history. The real power of the movie rests in its portrayal of political immorality. It offers the viewer a sober, quality account of the conflicts between political power, and personal moral responsibility, and the weaknesses of those who try to bridge the gap between them.

Australia’s Jason Clarke, who takes the lead role, bears a striking resemblance to a young Ted Kennedy, and is entirely convincing in the role. His understated performance brilliantly offers us a sad, grim, character study of the negative effects of power and privilege. He captures superbly a man who lives in the shadow of two dead brothers, haunted by the knowledge that he is inadequate to replace them. The film is especially forceful when it depicts Mary Jo’s tragic death as a problem that somehow has to be solved politically. In this and other ways, in a very low-key way, the film powerfully challenges the integrity of contemporary political behaviour.

This film is particularly relevant to debate about ethical issues in modern politics, and its account of the Chappaquiddick incident makes the movie a fascinating one in morally ambiguous times.

Peter W Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian  Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

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Released May 10th., 2018

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