Directed by John Curran
Starring Jason Clarke, Ed Helms, Kate Mara, Clancy Brown, Bruce Dern
For such a tricky true story involving politicians behaving badly, this new film from director John Curran is refreshingly restrained, making it better able to tell such a precise tale through the moral murkiness. Chappaquiddick really strikes a fine line between sentimentality and cynicism, where emotions are kept to as much of a minimum as possible, barely any tears are shed, and yet the amorality over its political processions never feels didactic or insulting to the audience.
The film is based on the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969, when Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) overturned his car in a pond, resulting in the death of his passenger and campaign helper Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), along with his initial negligence to report the incident. This film spends the right amount of time on each detail of this event, with a decent amount setting up the events beforehand in Chappaquiddick, before spending just as much time documenting the crash and its immediate aftermath. The bulk of the rest of the film is spent in private back rooms and offices, with characters like Kennedy’s cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) diligently trying to remedy the situation for Kennedy’s benefit.
Much is at stake for this Kennedy’s presidential campaign, of great concern to his associates, but it’s Mary Jo’s death that permeates this series of Ted’s efforts to win back the public affection, before the news even breaks. The occasional scenes of Mary Jo’s parents grieving over their loss and continuing with their lives are essential, as is their sparseness – this family tragedy ends up being dwarfed by the politician’s damage control.
This emotionally reserved telling of this tale is helped by the actors, such as Clarke’s duel expressions, showing both deep remorse and clumsy self-centeredness. Helms is also quietly contemplative and unpredictable in his role, which in a lesser film may’ve provided the obvious moral centre, but instead displays a dose of the same worried selfishness and steadiness to set things right. In a much more constrained performance is the excellent Bruce Dern as Ted’s father, confined to a wheelchair with very limited mobility or speech, but his minimalistic portrayal offers yet another character whose reaction to this tragedy is hard to exactly gauge.
Chappaquiddick should be applauded for this multifaceted tone it strikes. Perhaps it should also be slightly criticised as it doesn’t quite hit a satisfying climax, with Ted’s eventual comeback casually signifying the end of this story. His TV-broadcast address to the nation feels essential, yet reiterative at this point, though the impactful significance here comes from the (real) vox-pops of American citizens forgiving him for the troubling scenario he found himself in. Chappaquiddick neither condemns nor forgives, but seems to plainly represent this moment in history, with the fatal tragedy looming over every second of it.