Rated PG-13, 101 minutes
Kennedy's have become synonymous with tragedy as much as they have been with U.S. politics. The compelling, well-acted drama "Chappaquiddick" looks at the Chappaquiddick tragedy in 1969, when a passenger in Ted Kennedy's car was killed in a crash in which he was driving. In spite of some uneven patches and the fact it doesn't exactly shed any new light into the real story, it's a fascinating look at political damage control.
On July 18, 1969, Sen. Ted Kennedy ("Mudbound's" Jason Clarke) drives his car off of a bridge on Massachusetts' Chappaquiddick Island. The accident results in the death of his only passenger Mary Jo Kopechne ("Megan Leavey's" Kate Mara), a 28-year-old campaign strategist who worked for Kennedy. The ongoing investigation into the mysterious and scandalous events forever alters his political legacy -- and ultimately changes the course of presidential history.
"Chappaquiddick" is a solid, well-constructed look at the events of the tragedy in the summer of 1969, around the same as the Apollo 11 moon landing. It's directed by John Curran ("The Painted Veil") and co-written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. Seemingly on paper, it doesn't seem there's enough even for a film, given that Kennedy himself admitted negligence and quickly moved on from it. However, there are a couple of interesting pieces the film takes a closer look at it.
First, is Kennedy's delay in reporting the incident, which is still baffling to this day; he waited nearly 10 hours to report it, even after being strongly encouraged to by those around him - primarily by a couple in his inner circle who tried to help him - his cousin Joe Gargan (portrayed by Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (comedian Jim Gaffigan plays him here). The film slightly falters in this piece of it, providing only surface-level insight, saying that Kennedy may or may not have been confused.
Second, and far more intriguing, is the damage-control that Kennedy underwent after the accident, and surrounded by a group of men who had helped both of his brothers, including Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown here) and Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols), who helped Kennedy with his televised speech addressing the incident. It's interesting to old-school damage control before the age of the internet, dealing with newspapers and phone calls to make their impact, but still the same effect as "House of Cards" would do today.
"Chappaquiddick" is nicely acted by Clarke as Kennedy, who has mastered his accent and mannerisms without giving a direct impersonation of him. It doesn't shed much light into Kepechne, who's a minor role here played by the lovely Mara. Most of it seems to be a matter-of-fact statement of what happened, without taking a stance one way or the other. Given Kepechne's death, the moments of humor in the behind-the-scenes dealmaking are misplaced and could've been refocused by Curran. What is fun: Oscar-nominee Bruce Dern appears in a tiny role as patriarch Joseph Kennedy Sr., who (literally) slaps Teddy around a bit to keep him in line.
Ultimately, while the incident didn't tarnish Ted Kennedy's legacy as a senator and politics in general, it did impact his chances at the White House, and on that note, "Chappaquiddick" raises many "what if's" but only skims the surface of them. In the meantime, the film is an entertaining, well-acted look at one of many unfortunate pages in the book of one of the biggest U.S. political dynasties.