Toronto Film Review: ‘Chappaquiddick’

Chappaquiddick TIFF
Courtesy of AccuSoft Inc./TIFF

A meticulous docudrama rivetingly recounts the tragic car accident and its aftermath — an event of criminal negligence and cover-up — that defined the life of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Over the years, a great many actors have taken a turn at playing one of the Kennedy brothers (in made-for-TV movies, on “Saturday Night Live,” in big-screen historical dramas). The vast majority of these performances have been mediocre, a handful have been quite good, and a few have been memorable — like Bruce Greenwood’s cuttingly terse and commanding JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis drama “Thirteen Days,” or Peter Sarsgaard’s tender and battle-scarred Robert F. Kennedy in “Jackie.” To that short list of singular and superb Kennedy performances, we can now add the Australian actor Jason Clarke’s portrayal of Edward M. Kennedy in “Chappaquiddick.”

Clarke, with a bit of makeup, looks the part to an astonishing degree: the squint, the hawkish profile, the wedge of hair combed gently over from the left side, the lips that hang slightly open as if pondering a question, giving Kennedy an aura that’s more tentative, less forceful than that of his two legendary older brothers. Clarke also nails the voice — not just the familiar Boston accent but the dry understatement of it. He inhabits Ted Kennedy with the softly halting charm of an aging preppie who can seize up with self-doubt, but who still treats the world as his oyster.

There’s no contrivance in watching this actor; you simply accept the reality of his presence as Ted Kennedy. And that goes for the film as well. “Chappaquiddick” is exactly what you want it to be: a tense, scrupulous, absorbingly precise and authentic piece of history — a tabloid scandal attached to a smoke-filled-room travesty. It recounts and anatomizes, with riveting detail, the tragic car accident and its aftermath that cast its shadow over the political career of Edward Kennedy and, in many ways, came to symbolize his existence. The movie is avidly told and often suspenseful, but it’s really a fascinating study of how corruption in America works. It sears you with its relevance and, for that reason, has every chance to find an audience.

“Chappaquiddick” was directed by John Curran, from a super-sharp original screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan (it’s their first), and though the film is about a large event, it’s a gratifyingly compact, restrained, and level-headed drama that doesn’t hype what it shows you; it teases the intrigue out of the facts. It starts the day of the accident, when Kennedy heads to Martha’s Vineyard for an annual regatta. His family has a cottage on the adjoining isle of Chappaquiddick, and there’s a low-key party atmosphere, with Ted spending most of his time talking to Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a former secretary for his late brother Robert who was so devastated by his assassination that she left Washington. Ted is trying to convince her to come back.

Around 11:00 p.m., they drive out to the beach. Ted, who’s been guzzling whiskey from a bottle, zooms away from a local cop (he doesn’t want to be caught drunk, or seen with a pretty blonde he may have designs on). He then turns his gaze toward Mary Jo — and that’s the moment he drives off the bridge. It’s a short wooden structure, with no guard rails, and after fighting his way out of the water, he walks, in a daze, back to the cottage. He may be soused, but he’s already in damage-control mode.

At the cottage, when he sees Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), his cousin, friend, and lawyer, the first thing he says is, “We’ve got a problem,” followed by a quick, “I’m not going to be president.” He’s already thinking about himself, and no one but himself. He is thinking, in other words, like a Kennedy. Joe and their other comrade, the Massachusetts Attorney General Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), both tell Ted that he needs to report the crime, and he assures them that he will. But what he knows is that reporting the crime means he’ll be tested for alcohol consumption, so he has to wait. And wait.

The film says that what happened at Chappaquiddick was even worse than we think. Kopechne’s body was found in a position that implied that she was struggling to keep her head out of the water. And what the film suggests is that once the car turned upside down, she didn’t die; she was alive and then drowned, after a period of time, as the water seeped in. This makes Edward Kennedy’s decision not to report the crime a clear-cut act of criminal negligence — but in spirit (if not legally), it renders it something closer to an act of killing.

“Chappaquiddick” is a meticulously told chronicle, no more and no less, and at times there’s a slight detachment in watching it, because it’s too tough and smart to milk the situation by turning Edward Kennedy into a “tragic figure.” In certain ways, he may well have been, and there are moments when we see the sad grandeur with which this disaster hangs on his stooped shoulders, but the movie is fundamentally the portrait of a weasel: a man who, from the moment the accident happens, takes as his premise that he will not suffer the consequences, and then does what it takes to twist reality so that it conforms to that scenario.

That twisting consists, mostly, of calling his protectors. It starts with his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who rasps out one word on the phone: “Alibi!” Joe is an 80-year-old stroke victim who can barely speak; he’s played, sitting in a wheelchair, by Bruce Dern, with a slack leer and a mouth twisted open, but with eyes that still burn with the merciless ferocity of power. Ted, with Joe’s help, is soon face to face with their high-end version of the Deep State: All the Kennedys’ Men, like the brainy speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols) and the former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (a grimly magnetic Clancy Brown), who begin to make their moves.

A local physician is summoned, so that he can decree that Kennedy suffered a concussion (even though Ted is fine, and the doctor never even examines him). Amazingly, the incident on the bridge took place on the very same weekend as the moon landing, and utilizing that fact, and a little more strategic delaying, the news is kept out of the headlines (though not The New York Times). Then a deal gets cut with the local prosecutor — an old friend of Ted’s — to charge Kennedy with leaving the scene of an accident, which results in a suspended sentence.

It’s all a half-truth, a whitewash, yet Kennedy is so frazzled that he keeps screwing up the cover-up. He gives a written statement to the press that’s full of contradictions, and his decision to wear a neck brace to Mary Jo Kopechne’s funeral — where he somehow has no trouble turning his neck around — becomes an iconic advertisement for his guilty conscience. (The neck brace looks just like the prop it is. Therefore: What’s he hiding?)

Clarke’s Kennedy remains a humanly abashed yet strangely unapologetic figure. His call to the Kopechne family results in a rare moment of remorse, at which point he considers resigning from the Senate. But the pang of sanctimony doesn’t last. He’s a survivor, and a good son, and he does what his father tells him to do. He holds on to his power, without regard to the consequences.

Forty-eight years later, let’s be clear on what the meaning of Chappaquiddick is. Ted Kennedy should, by all rights, have stood trial for involuntary manslaughter, which would likely have ended his political career. The fact that the Kennedy family — the original postwar dynasty of the one percent — possessed, and exerted, the influence to squash the case is the essence of what Chappaquiddick means. The Kennedys lived outside the law; the one instance in American history of an illegally stolen presidential election was the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. He in all likelihood lost the race to Richard Nixon, but his father tried to steal the election for him by manipulating the vote tallies in (among other places) Illinois. That’s the meaning of Chappaquiddick. too.

I don’t say any of this as a right-wing troll. But those are the facts, and they are facts that liberals, too often, have been willing to shove under the carpet. And they have paid the price. Ted Kennedy became known as “the Lion of the Senate,” and did a lot of good, but when you try to build a governing philosophy on top of lies, one way or another those lies will come back to haunt you. (Hello, Donald Trump! He’s an incompetent bully, but his middle name might be “Liberal Karma.”) As a movie, “Chappaquiddick” doesn’t embellish the incidents it shows us, because it doesn’t have to. It simply delivers the truth of what happened: the logistical truth of the accident, and also the squirmy truth of what went on in Ted Kennedy’s soul. The result may play like avid prose rather than investigative cinema poetry, but it still adds up to a movie that achieves what too few American political dramas do: a reckoning.

Toronto Film Review: 'Chappaquiddick'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 10, 2017. Running time: 107 MIN.

Production

(USA) An Apex Entertainment, DMG Entertainment, Chimney Group LA production. Producers: Mark Ciardi, Campbell McInnes, Chris Cowles. Executive producers: Chris Fenton, Dan Mintz, Doug Jones, Tom Duterme, Stephen Schuler, Ben Rose, Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan.

Crew

Director: John Curran. Screenplay: Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan. Camera (color, widescreen): Maryse Alberti. Editor: Keith Fraase. Music: Garth Stevenson.

With

Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, Olivia Thirlby, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols.

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  1. dghealy says:

    Now, that is what real privilege looks like

  2. greenhornet says:

    Paul Markham was not the Massachusetts Attorney General at the time of the accident at Chappaquiddick nor was he ever a Massachusetts Attorney General. He was appointed by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to serve as an assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts in 1963. Markham succeeded the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts spot held by Arthur Garrity when Garrity was made a judge in 1966. Markham remained in that position until 1969.

  3. sukietawdry says:

    Ted Kennedy was a fat, old womanizing rumpot who let a woman die because he valued his political career more than her life. His family and their “retainers” were every bit as despicable and reprehensible as he. He did not do a lot of good during his years in the Senate; he, in fact, did this country lasting harm. He had no redeeming qualities. His old man, the odious patriarch, said they had to get Ted a Senate seat because he was too dumb to do anything else. The voters who kept returning him to that seat term after term deserve our scorn.

    We owe Mary Jo Kopechne a great debt of gratitude. Had it not been for Chappaquiddick, Kennedy might well have become president. Here’s hoping this film causes his family a great deal of well-deserved heartburn.

  4. Did that documentary say why Kennedy then would pretend to have been the driver, and thus become more involved with a tragedy he was not connected to at all?

    Of course, if he was lying all the way, as this review suggests, then going to another event would be the perfect … alibi.

  5. John Dickey says:

    Many years ago, there was a TV documentary that had a different suggestion for what happened. Your article did not mention that about two hours after the accident happened, Ted was seen by a group of people at a gathering. It does not make any sense that if Ted was drunk, and if he drove off of the bridge, that he would find a way to get home, dry off, change clothes, then go to the event.

    The documentary gave the suggestion that Ted pulled over, and the two of them got out of the car, then he tried to talk her into having sex with him. She refused, and got scared, so she jumped in his car, and drove away.

    The single lane road comes to the bridge at an angle, and a driver has to make a quick turn to get on the bridge. With it being night, and her not knowing about the curve, she missed it, and went off of the bridge.

    This would also explain why Ted would have been at a nearby gathering of people two hours later, and was dry. After she refused his sexual advance, and she got in his car and drove away, he walked to the nearby gathering.

  6. kellymoncus says:

    He did so much good…………….how or what?

  7. The “Liar of the Senate” did sooo much gooood….. for himself!

  8. Tom Blumer says:

    Poppy says: “Ted Kennedy spent the rest of his life making up for Chapaquidick,
    greatly benefitting America in the process. You should be ashamed.”

    OMG: YOU should be ashamed.

    Kennedy liked to joke about Chappaquiddick:

  9. poppy says:

    It is a persistent myth that Kennedy stole the 1960 election from Nixon using the Illinois vote. These are the facts per The Washington Post But Illinois didn’t change the national outcome. Although the 1960 election was the closest since 1884 according to the popular vote, Kennedy’s margin in the electoral college was more than large enough to survive the loss of Illinois.

    Kennedy won 303 electoral votes; his Republican opponent Richard Nixon won 219. (The remaining 15 electors voted for segregationist Democrat Harry Byrd.) If Illinois’s 27 electoral votes shifted from Kennedy to Nixon, Kennedy would still have won, with 276 votes to Nixon’s 246. Only 269 were needed to win in 1960 (vs. 270 today).

    A more accurate claim is that Nixon would have won, with 270 electoral votes, if he had flipped both Illinois and Texas. But Texas wasn’t nearly as close as Illinois. While Kennedy won Illinois by just 8,858 votes (0.2 percent), he won Texas, the home state of his running mate Lyndon Johnson, by 46,627 votes (2 percent). Out of the 22 states that Kennedy won, there were seven that he won more narrowly than Texas.

    So, no, it is not a fact that the election was stolen from Nixon, and yes, you are a rightwing troll.

    Also, and this is no small thing, Ted Kennedy spent the rest of his life making up for Chapaquidick,
    greatly benefitting America in the process. You should be ashamed.

    • kellymoncus says:

      LBJ was picked as a running mate even though he could not stand JFK because he could deliver Texas come Hell or Highwater. He delivered and for that he paid the price, politics is or was a very dangerous game.

  10. Gary Denton says:

    All you need to know, the movie critic mistakenly believes that JFK stole the 1960 election and they are the ultimate crooked political family. He has to even try to deny in the review that he is a right-wing troll. Sorry Owen, you are.
    Rather than accepting the election for the good of the country, as Nixon claimed, the GOP fought every state where they could make some sort of fraud claim – 11 states. Far from supporting the Kennedys many newspapers kept the story alive. Only one state changed – Hawaii. The most obvious point, even if Nixon won Illinois he still would have lost seems lost in the Republican mythology. The Democratic lead in Texas was too big for fraud and nearly all of the Republican desperate recount challenges in the states were laughed out of court.
    A reasonable summary here:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history_lesson/2000/10/was_nixon_robbed.html

  11. Joe Smith says:

    No “Variety” article that disrespects a Democrat is allowed to stand unless it ends in calling President Trump and incompetent bully, no matter how irrelevant Trump is to subject of the article.

  12. Vidor says:

    Review kind of goes off the rails at the end there. Others in this comment thread have noted how JFK still wins in 1960 without Illinois, even if him stealing Illinois is a fact, when it’s actually myth. It would be good for journalists not to make stuff up. And the link between Ted Kennedy beating the rap in 1969 and Donald Trump being elected president 47 years later is an odd one.

  13. gareyes says:

    I don’t defend Ted Kennedy’s ruthless actions but why do writers continue to promote the fiction that the 1960 election was stolen? The Cook County machine may have been corrupt as alleged but Kennedy didn’t squeak by on the electoral college. Final results: 303 to Nixon’s 219. Even if Nixon had won Illinois, he would have lost since Illinois accounted for only 27 electoral votes. You’d have to prove all the other states Kennedy won to be corrupt. The film is about Ted’s corruption. Fair enough but Nixon didn’t win the 1960 election.

    • Carol says:

      Texas and Illinois were stolen, which meant a 51 EC vote swing.

      • James Kabala says:

        I should add that I am not an admirer of the Kennedys, am very impressed that this movie has been made, and applaud the actors who have chosen to appear in it. But the later part of the review does stray from the documentary record (and strangely tries to put all the blame for the alleged fraud on Joe Sr., as if Daley and LBJ were any slouches in that department).

      • James Kabala says:

        Kennedy won Texas by 46,000 votes. That seems like a tough margin even for LBJ and his machine to pull off. (Illinois was only by 9,000.) Michael Barone (probably the Number One elections expert in America and a conservative) thinks it is too big a margin to be fraudulent – maybe the real margin was narrower, but Kennedy probably did win the state in reality.

  14. Kala says:

    The power of Kennedy money and connections not only protected this horrible human being, it promoted him. Democrats have long been the friend of criminals. Nothing new.

  15. Seamus Martin says:

    You write a thorough and thoughtful review, and then you throw in Trump. Why?! The movie is political therefore one must mention Trump? NO! My goodness, let the reader or viewer draw conclusions. You do not have to draw them for us, and really, you shouldn’t. For a lot of people, that throwaway aside to Trump invalidates a very good piece of critical reporting, and that’s a shame.

  16. Shawna "Fattie" Waldron says:

    reviewer is a right wing troll. Didn’t have to mention that at all to make the review relevant.

  17. Sam Valley says:

    May Ted Kennedy burn in hell for his crimes against the United States and poor Mary Jo Kopechne

    • Steve says:

      As this movie apparently points out, Kennedy got off light for a horrible wrong. (For the record, I’m quite far left.)

      However, Hell doesn’t exist.

  18. Dub says:

    “cast its shadow over the political career”? This creep was reelected over and over for 30 years by the sheep in Massachusetts. Can you imagine if a Republican had done this cowardly thing? The media would have hounded him into oblivion in short order.

    • cadavra says:

      “I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and I wouldn’t lose any supporters.” Nuff said.

      • cadavra says:

        Wrong. He has no political fidelity at all, and has swung back and forth between the two parties constantly since the mid-80s. Frankly, I doubt he even votes all that often. (You may recall that his two grown sons had never even registered to vote until last year.)

      • Rock Knutne says:

        @cadavara
        You DO know Trump was a Democrat his entire voting life…right?

      • Carol says:

        @cadavra – He didn’t actually shoot anybody – Teddy did kill someone. And I don’t know of any Republicans who have murdered a woman and then gone on to be ” the Lion of the Senate”. Got any examples?

      • cadavra says:

        That is factually correct, but it is irrelevant with regard to the OP. Chappaquiddick was an accident. Trump stated he was capable or murdering someone with impunity. The history books are full of Republicans who’ve gotten away with far worse than what Kennedy did, but no one ever mentions them, because it doesn’t suit their crazed narrative that all Democrats are evil and all Republicans are saintly.

      • Kpg1314 says:

        Was one of the more idiotic things to says. Difference is, he didn’t actually do that.

      • Steve says:

        Well played, sir.

  19. “JFK stole the election”, and this dude isn’t a rightwing troll how?!

    • Steve says:

      Because, as the righties here are only too glad to point out, he’s an anti-Trump liberal. If he’s wrong about the 1960 election, maybe you should provide links to facts instead of insults.

  20. dvice12 says:

    The Washington Post recently published an op-ed debunking the false myth that Kennedy “stole” the 1960 election. The evidence not only fails to support this myth that Kennedy stole Illinois votes, but it also points out that he didn’t even need Illinois votes to become President. Certainly no stolen election. I’m surprised the author here repeats this falsehood. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/08/08/heres-a-voter-fraud-myth-richard-daley-stole-illinois-for-john-kennedy-in-the-1960-election/?utm_term=.cc04c1fefe17

  21. Mitch says:

    Are you forgetting that Ted Kennedy was a democrat?

    • Steve says:

      Everyone knows he was a Democrat. That you focus on that after Gleiberman — a guy who gets a lot of grief here for his liberal politics — is fair enough to scold his own side is interesting.

  22. Jeffrey Jones says:

    David Nasaw, a biographer of Joe Kennedy, has said that he found no evidence that Kennedy orchestrated voter fraud in Illinois. Gleiberman should justify his claim that Joe Kennedy fixed the vote in Illinois, especially since he states that the alleged voter fraud is a “fact.”

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