Chappaquiddick (2018): John Curran’s Fact-Based Drama of Kennedy Scandal, Starring Jason Clarke as Senator Ted Kennedy

John Curran directed this systematic but only sporadically powerful historical drama, written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, starring Jason Clarke as Senator Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne.

The necessarily detailed plot describes the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which Kennedy drove his car into Poucha Pond, causing death of a woman, as well as his and the Kennedy family’s response to the tragic event.

The film premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Fest, but was released in the U.S. almost a year later, on April 6, 2018.

When the tale begins it’s July 1969, and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy gives an interview, questioned about standing in the shadow of his late brothers, John and Robert Kennedy.

He calls his cousin, Joe Gargan, to arrange for hotel rooms on Martha’s Vineyard for the Boiler Room Girls, his brother Robert’s campaign staff. Kennedy travels to Chappaquiddick Island, where he meets with Joe and MA Attorney Paul Markham for a sail race. After losing the race, Kennedy goes to a party at a beach house with friends and the Boiler Room Girls.

Kennedy leaves the party with Mary Jo Kopechne, and driving away they encounter police from Edgartown. The officer asks if they need help, but Kennedy backs up and drives quickly away. In haste he accidentally drives off the Dike Bridge causing the car to flip over before it submerges into a pond.

The screen goes black and he calls out to Mary Jo, then sits crying. He leaves the scene, walking back to the party at the beach house. He tells Gargan and Markham, “We have a problem.” They go to the site and try multiple dives to enter the overturned vehicle. Gargan and Markham insist he report the incident immediately, which he agrees to do. But instead, he gets in a rowboat and Gargan and Markham row him to Edgartown, where they separate.

Kennedy, in the bathtub, imagines he was Mary Jo drowning. He gets dressed, puts on a suit, nice pants, and shoes and combs his hair. He calls his father asking for advice. His father (Bruce Dern) mutters one word, “alibi.”

When the night porter emerges, he asks the time, and the porter says it’s 2:25 a.m. Kennedy gets into bed, in pajamas, turns off the light and goes to sleep without contacting the police.

In the morning, the overturned vehicle is discovered by a man and his son, who call the police. Police Chief Arena (Fiore) and the fire department recover Kopechne’s body from the car, which is registered to Kennedy.

Gargan and Markham insist that Kennedy must turn himself in. Kennedy goes with Markham to the Edgartown Police Department and commandeers the Chief’s office waiting for his return. The medical examiner holds it’s an open and shut case of drowning, but the undertaker thinks it could be suffocation. The diver says, “She was holding herself up like she was trying to get her last breath of air. I could have had her out of the car in 25 minutes–if I got the call–but no one called.”

After giving the Chief a prepared statement (written by Markham), Kennedy travels to the family compound in Hyannisport.  His disabled father Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. charges that he has disgraced the family. To his surprise, a damage control team, led by Robert McNamara, meets to deal with his legal and public relations issues.

They want insure that the body is not examined again and that the official records of his license being expired are changed by a friendly official. The goal is to craft a public relations strategy for after the current news cycle, then dominated by the first man landing on the Moon. Preparing to attend Kopechne’s funeral, Kennedy thinks he’ll gain good press by wearing neck brace, but this ploy backfires.

Kennedy decides to appeal to the people of Massachusetts on national TV. His team uses the family’s influence to speed up resolution of the legal hearing, as anything he says publicly might be used against him. Kennedy gets a plea deal of leaving the scene of an accident with a two months jail time, which the judge suspends on Kennedy’s character and good standing.

Gargan–who has become increasingly disgusted with Kennedy for not being honest about the facts of the case and attempting to play the victim–attempts to resign. Kennedy, having just been slapped by his father, tells Gargan he intends to resign from the Senate and asks him to draft a resignation speech. He tells Gargan not to tell anyone.

As Kennedy is ready to go on national television with the speech prepared by Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) designed to elicit public sympathy for Kennedy, Gargan delivers the resignation speech, telling Kennedy it is the right thing to do. But instead, Kennedy throws it away and Gargan is pressed to hold Kennedy’s cue cards for Sorensen’s speech.  The public has mixed views, the majority interviewed say they would re-elect him.

The credits explain that Joseph Kennedy Sr. died soon after the incident; Gargan became estranged from the family; and Kennedy lost the Democratic Party presidential primaries, 1980 but continued in the U.S. Senate for 40 years.

The filmmakers should be commended for making a film about an episode that younger viewers probably have never heard of, but the film is too distanced, too methodical, lacking the warmth (heart) that would have made it so much more powerful.

And then there’s the issue of selectivity: some of the most intriguing and relevant issues are raised but either not dealt with in depth, or remain unanswerable.

Released by Entertainment Picture, which acquired the film for $4 million, and spent three times as much on promoting and advertising it, Chappaquiddick was only moderately successful at the box-office.

For a variety of reasons, the movie never became a must-see experience, nor did it stir debate among in or outside the film world.  Was the public tired of dealing with political scandals, which have been prominent ever since Trump was elected president, in November 2016.