Chappaquiddick – a quick review

Chappaquiddick – a quick review

Kate Mara in ChappaquiddickThere are some spoilers in this brief review of Chappaquiddick, so see the film first if that bothers you.

The latest film from director John Curran (The Painted Veil, Tracks), Chappaquiddick, covers the 1969 incident that haunted  U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy’s life and career. It is a story that has been well documented. A tragedy where a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne  (played by Kate Mara) lost her life in a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island, with Ted Kennedy  (Jason Clarke) driving. This film succeeds in making the political, and the historical, very personal, to the point where some scenes are hard to watch.

There’s a lot of information and speculation about this incident, and the nature of the relationship between Mary Jo Kopechne and Ted Kennedy. The film faithfully depicts the events as they were described in testimony by various witnesses during the inquest, including Kennedy himself. But the film goes beyond that, bringing it to life, showing Mary Jo Kopechne as more than a random woman who is known only because of who she was with and what happened at the time of her death. The recreation of the accident itself is painful to watch, as we return a couple of time to watch Mary Jo struggle to get free of the car, and then slowly run out of air as she tries to breath, hoping for rescue, with only a small air pocket remaining in the submerged car.

Also brilliantly portrayed is the  character of Ted Kennedy. Ted was the youngest of the Kennedy brothers, and at the time of the accident, the only one still living. We see the complicated and extremely difficult relationship the youngest Kennedy had with his father, Joseph Kennedy Sr (played by Bruce Dern), who had suffered a debilitating stroke some years before, but was still a dominating figure in the family. We also witness the fairly indefensible decisions Kennedy himself made as events unfolded, decisions that he never really recovered from despite the fact he remained a Senator until his death 40 years later. What I found so compelling about this film, with a tight script, good direction and a great cast, is that this very political story becomes a story about people and relationships, which is really what it always was.