This article was first published during the Toronto Film Festival. Spoilers ahead for Chappaquiddick.
We’re now half a century removed from the heyday of the Kennedy political dynasty, and most of us only know the broad strokes of the mythic tragedies that came to define them. Jack was assassinated, Bobby was assassinated, and Teddy had that car crash on Massachusetts’s Chappaquiddick Island that killed that young woman. Two of those events were incredibly public, happened on camera, and changed the course of history. The other is more nebulous, took place at night with zero witnesses, and ended the life of a 28-year-old who’s been relegated to a footnote, while shaking up but ultimately preserving the political career of a Kennedy who went on to spend 40 years in the Senate. People under 30 don’t even know about the Tonya Harding–Nancy Kerrigan incident from 1992. Why would they know about a car crash in 1969?
But maybe they should. That seems to be the strong suggestion of the gripping new drama, Chappaquiddick, that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, directed by John Curran (Tracks) and starring Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke as Teddy. And maybe those of us who do have instant recognition ought to look at little deeper at what we think we know. The similarities between that era of political doublespeak and this one are striking. Of the many biopics and character studies I’ve seen at TIFF (The Current War; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; Stronger; Borg/McEnroe; I, Tonya), this is the only one that plays out simultaneously like a political thriller, a tale of injustice, and a rewriting of a beloved public figure — and had me immediately searching Wikipedia to devour more details.
Curran opens the film with a re-creation of a tense TV interview in which Teddy is asked if it’s been difficult living in the shadows of his two brothers. He sits in silence for a moment, then gets up to shake the interviewer’s hand: “I think you have what you need.”
It’s a telling prelude that sets the stage for all that follows. But from then on, the structure is propulsively linear, starting with the Friday of the accident and going day by day through the horror show that followed in Teddy’s Very Bad Week, as he and his family scrambled for damage control that completely erased the horrible death of Mary Jo Kopechne (played by Kate Mara) that — the film lays out in very convincing manner — was most definitely his fault. Man, is it relentless, and edge-of-your-seat absorbing: a portrait of an amiable fuckup’s descent into cynicism, and his reluctant embrace of the family business, whose cost of entry is a part of his soul.
Were the Kennedys consulted on the project? “I don’t think they want anything to do with it,” Clarke told me at the post-screening party. (Curran said he talked to a friend who knew the family, “and her note to me was, ‘Just remember they’re human beings.’”) All I know is that you won’t soon forget the sound of a post-stroke Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) emphatically croaking out one word — “Alibi!” — when his son calls to tell him that he’s “made a mistake.”
Here’s the setup: The night of Friday, July 18, 1969, Teddy and some buddies attended an annual reunion of staffers from Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign (the fourth such reunion since his assassination) on Chappaquiddick, an island off of Martha’s Vineyard. The guests of honor were a group of campaign secretaries known as the Boiler Room Girls, for the hot, windowless part of the D.C. headquarters where they used to do diligent liaison work with state delegates. All six men at the party were married; all six women were unmarried and under 28. Much has been made over the years of the salaciousness of those optics — coupled with the Kennedy men’s reputation for infidelity — but Curran’s is not the tabloid approach. There was drinking, yes, but as he depicts it, this was a gathering of idealists still in mourning. Mary Jo, in particular, had been so bereft over Bobby’s death, she’d left Washington. That night, Teddy was trying to convince her to rejoin the fray for his possible presidential run in ’72.
Is that true? Who knows anything between all the cover-ups and the cover-ups of the cover-ups. According to Curran, every astounding fact in the movie (from a script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) was taken verbatim from Teddy’s written statements, plus an inquest held a couple weeks after the accident. It just so happens that the historical record is full of holes and contradictions, and brings up more questions than it answers. Chiefly, how did the accident happen? And what happened in the ten hours before Teddy reported it?
To this day, there’s still no clear explanation of why Mary Jo and Teddy left the party together (Joyce Carol Oates has some juicy theories in her novella, Black Water), or why — if Teddy was driving her to the ferry to catch a ride back to her hotel, as he later claimed — she’d left her handbag and hotel keys back at the party. Or how, if he was sober, as he also claimed, they wound up on the unlit dirt road in the opposite direction of the ferry where Teddy’s car would go flying off a bridge, landing upside down in water, with Teddy somehow escaping and Mary Jo trapped inside.
Making matters even more ambiguous is Clarke, who goes against convention — and testimony from the time — by not showing Teddy as a sobbing mess. Instead, he’s a marvel of stoic confusion and entitlement; there’s a tension to his blankness that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen. Clarke told me he studied all of Teddy’s speeches get his accent down, and wore fake teeth to achieve his smile (though it took months to get the fake chompers thin enough for him to speak without destroying the inside of his mouth).
Mara, too, is memorable in her limited screen time — which is the point. This isn’t Mary Jo’s story, but we get a sense of her grief over Bobby, her dedication to politics, and the kind of spiritual connection, and perhaps attraction, she felt with Teddy. “She always gets erased from the narrative; that can’t be helped,” Curran told me. “But we wanted to be honest about who she was. All those girls were highly educated, independent, ambitious, and integral to Bobby’s election campaign. History has sort of relegated her to being a footnote, just a secretary and they were sleeping together. There’s no evidence that they had a relationship.”
Even if they did, that’s not what matters. It’s one thing to know that a woman died that night in Teddy’s car, or to read a couple lines about it in a high-school textbook. It’s another to watch it happen, to see Mara as Mary Jo onscreen shouting for Teddy’s help, and gasping for breath in a small air pocket. What the film does best is lay out, in an increasingly horrible deluge, just how many baffling and criminally negligent actions — other than try to save Mary Jo’s life — Teddy took in the accident’s wake. Among them:
• Pulling himself from the car, but not Mary Jo. He claimed he dove into the water seven or eight times to try to get her, but couldn’t get the doors open, and then collapsed on the bank of the water for some 15 minutes from exhaustion and shock.
• Not immediately running for help.
• Not stopping to phone the police at any of the four houses that were closer to the water than the cottage where the party was taking place.
• Still not phoning the police when he reached the cottage, but instead gathering up his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Gargan’s buddy, U.S. Attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) to go back to the crash site to try to rescue Mary Jo. (In the movie, when they ask him what’s wrong, he replies, “I’m not going to be president.”)
• Not telling any of the other Boiler Room Girls about the accident because, he said in testimony, he was worried about their safety and the possibility that they would hurt themselves trying to dive down to rescue Mary Jo. (Not in the movie.)
• Still not reporting the accident, despite Gargan and Markham, both lawyers, insisting he had to.
• Swimming the channel, he testified, to get back to his hotel on a nearby island since the ferry was out for the night. (The movie suggests this was bullshit, and Gargan and Markham had taken Teddy by rowboat.)
• Complaining about a noisy party at his hotel.
• Dressing in a suit to call his father from a pay phone — and still not calling the police. (This may be the movie’s conjecture.)
• Getting breakfast at the club with friends the next morning.
• Taking a ferry back to Chappaquiddick to make calls from a pay phone to friends asking for PR advice. Still not calling the police.
Instead — these are facts — someone else found the car and made the call the next morning. A diver retrieved Mary Jo’s body in 10 minutes (in the film, and in testimony, he says he could’ve gotten her out in 25 if he’d gotten the call). The way her neck was angled suggested that she’d been gasping for breath in an air pocket, and died of suffocation rather than drowning. And here’s the doozy: She may have been alive in that car for three or four hours after the crash. This is the part where you’ll want to throw your popcorn at the screen.
The only actions that make sense on a human level, in Curran’s telling, are when Teddy refuses the advice of his father’s war council and takes responsibility for being the driver (who knows how it went down), and when he personally calls Mary Jo’s parents with the news — again, before reporting the accident to the police (accurate).
The rest of the film goes through the series of missteps Teddy and his boys made, all of which were quickly glossed over by the police and the press in what many think is one of the most flagrant examples in history of a national willingness to turn a blind eye to the bad deeds of wealthy and powerful men — that’s before Joe called in his cavalry of political schemers to take over the show. (“The Bay of Pigs was a better-run operation,” one of them remarks; it’s conjecture in the film, but really the only explanation for how quickly everything got swept under the rug.) Within two days, the Armstrong moon landing had pushed it off the front page. Within seven days, Teddy had pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and causing bodily harm, with a two-month prison sentence he didn’t have to serve. Rather than resign from the Senate, he made a televised statement asking the people of Massachusetts to decide his fate — and they overwhelmingly voted in his favor. The special investigation and grand jury hearing that followed actually served more to bury the matter than bring it to light.
“Didn’t we just go through this?” a friend at the screening asked me. Watching Teddy give his televised statement and then get forgiven by voters is sure to induce flashbacks of Trump talking direct-to-camera about how that Access Hollywood pussy-grabbing tape was just “locker-room talk,” and then winning the election. Teddy’s crime was more severe, but he also admitted far more responsibility for what he’d done. Ignore anyone who says this movie has no relevance to today.
“People need to understand that we’re not in new territory,” said Clarke. Curran added that he wouldn’t have done the movie if Teddy were alive, but he felt like now was the right time to reiterate that “it’s a time-honored tradition that politicians fuck up and people around them, for self-interest, cover it up.”
Curran doesn’t make this case in the movie — and shows admirable restraint at not making it in ending title cards — but Chappaquiddick, in a way, made way for Donald Trump by ending any possibility of having another Kennedy in the White House. “I feel like, if Ted hadn’t had this accident,” he said, “it’s very likely that Ted would [have] become president in ’72, the war would’ve ended early, the southern strategy of the Republicans wouldn’t have taken root, and there wouldn’t have been Watergate. Who knows how the political climate would’ve evolved in the last half of the last century? So I think the accident is definitely worth looking at and talking about.”
More dangerous, Clarke thinks, is the precedent it set — though of course this already existed, too — for powerful men to not have to face consequences. “I think it raises the question of, what if Bill Clinton had resigned?” he said. “Not to say he’s guilty, but what if he’d been a servant and said, ‘You know what, for the benefit of the country, and the Democratic party, and ending this gridlock, I’m going to let Al Gore run.’ Like you do in any other job, you recuse yourself.” Where would we be on the environment? On police reform? It’s easy to paint the GOP and Trump as evil, but with power comes corruption and cover-ups, no matter the side of the political aisle. “I think the Democratic Party also need to have a great look at themselves and who we worship and be honest about it,” said Clarke. “Not hide from the things we’ve done.” Among them, letting a 28-year-old named Mary Jo Kopechne die a horrible death trapped in a car in a river on an island off Massachusetts in 1969, and then spending 40 years not punishing, but electing and reelecting the man whose negligence had put her there.