Chappaquiddick opens on a montage of Kennedy-family misfortune, delivered via crackling vintage newscast: Joe Jr., John, Robert; all golden, all gone too soon. And then there’s Edward, the only surviving brother and last great hope of an American dynasty.
But the title of John Curran’s historical docu-drama, of course, is synonymous with the reason Teddy would never hold a higher office than U.S. Senate — the car crash off Martha’s Vineyard in the late hours of July 18, 1969, that left a 28-year-old named Mary Jo Kopechne dead, while the man behind the wheel walked away.
As Teddy, Australian actor Jason Clarke (Mudbound, Zero Dark Thirty) has the blessing and burden of joining the onscreen Kennedy club, and Curran (2013’s Tracks) doesn’t stint on the signifiers: the flat chowdah vowels, the wind-rippled sailboats, the green lawns and regattas and twilit cocktail hours. Ed Helms also slips seamlessly into a rare serious role as Teddy’s blood-loyal cousin and lawyer Joe Gargan, a man both of the clan and forever just a little outside it; he has the proximity and the pedigree, but none of the glamour.
Joe is close enough, at least, to be included on weekend trip to the island with a half-dozen former RFK campaign workers known as the Boiler Room Girls, a boozy mid-summer bacchanal set against the giddy backdrop of the first moon landing. Amidst all the house-party chaos, the fine-boned Mary Jo (Kate Mara) stands apart, a quiet idealist who’s still mourning Bobby but seems to have a special connection with Teddy too. Maybe that’s why she agrees to get in his car and go for a ride, even though it’s late and he’s clearly well past his limit.
First-time screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s tight script sticks mostly to the well-documented facts and aftermath, and Clarke lets his Teddy live in the tricky place between sympathy and straight villain-hood. In some scenes he’s irredeemable, an oblivious prince so privileged he can put on a clean pair of chinos, comb his hair, and go to brunch while his flipped Oldsmobile sits yards away, underwater and still unreported. (If that’s his definition of being in shock, it’s a strange one.)
In public he’s kowtowed to by nearly everyone he meets, from a local police chief to the country doctor who does his bidding. But inside the family compound, he’s also a broken boy-child endlessly bullied by his pitiless father (Bruce Dern, in full geriatric-Daddy Dearest mode). He also shows flashes of real grief, or something like it, in between his sustained bouts of pique and self-pity. (Faced with a board of advisors who treat Mary Jo’s death like a nuisance that needs to be diffused by the next news cycle, it falls mostly on Helms’ reluctant fixer to embody the outrage that the “collateral damage” here is a human life.)
What the movie doesn’t do, until it’s nearly over, is make any real case for why so much of America continued to put their faith in Kennedy long after the facts of the case were revealed. Could good hair and a hallowed name really carry a man that far? But Chappaquiddick is less about relitigating an American tragedy — or making full sense of the figures behind it — than in casting a light, however brief, on one more dark corner of the deathless Kennedy myth. B+