Chappaquiddick | John Curran | April 6th, 2018
The Kennedy family has long been a magnet for publicity. Throughout their long existence at the front of American politics and business, they’ve endured a string of tragedies that have been burned into the minds of the public. By the time that events in Chappaquiddick took place, Senator Ted Kennedy had already seen all of his older brothers die, leaving him as the eventual patriarch of the family.
To give readers who might not know New England geography that well an idea of the setting, Chappaquiddick is a small island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, which is in turn off the coast of the Cape Cod peninsula, where the Kennedy Compound resides. Sandy dunes, marshy inlets, and small residences dot the island, while it hosts many recreational visitors during the summer months. On July 18th, 1969, after leaving a party with friends, Ted Kennedy’s car careened off of a small bridge, landing in the shallow water below. His passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, (officially) drowned at the scene. The following jumble of events and the timeline are what make up the bulk of Chappaquiddick’s plot, as Ted and his family go about handling the situation.
The drama of Chappaquiddick is less a product of its writing and more just the factual novelties of the event itself. The ambiguities of guilt are explored through Kennedy’s own hazy remembrance of what transpired versus the framing of what his public relations/legal aides created. The thing is, if you’re not the type of person that normally gets entertained by a web of bureaucracy unfolding, Chappaquiddick might not be interesting enough to hold your undivided attention. Being director John Curran’s first major release in a few years, it feels a little distant. Not bad — just muted. The cinematography from Maryse Alberti (who has previously worked with the likes of Ryan Coogler, M. Night Shyamalan, and Darren Aronofsky) is competent, but nothing outstanding in the literal sense. However, I don’t actually think a “better” adaptation of this story could really be made – at least one that doesn’t embellish events for the sake of suspense and drama.
Where Chappaquiddick really shines is in its acting. I’ve said this previously in my review of Winchester, but reiterate that Jason Clarke’s career has taken a huge upswing in recent years, with roles that allow him more room to breathe. He’s quickly gone from “that guy in that thing” to a lead actor who can anchor a film by himself. Chappaquiddick is no exception, and Clarke almost uncannily slips into the shoes of Ted Kennedy. His assumed physical mannerisms really sell the fact that Ted was the more awkward of the Kennedy brothers, and suffering severely from imposter syndrome in the shade of their shadows. Likewise, Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan, known more for their comedic talents, really nail their roles as Kennedy’s right and left hands in the incident.
It didn’t really surprise me that I was the youngest patron in my theater by at least thirty years. The Chappaquiddick incident may be more of a generational story, whereas the assassinations of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy have become history for all ages. The passage of time and the greater ideas of justice all permeate through the story, and I think that it’s an important idea that should be seen. Chappaquiddick succeeds in creating a window into the history of the Kennedys, for better or worse.