John Curran’s Chappaquiddick offers no new information about the 1969 incident on Dike Bridge that killed 28 year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. She was a passenger in a car driven by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy that plunged into the waters below the wooden bridge. Kennedy escaped that Friday evening, although he had no memory of it; he did recall making several attempts to extricate Kopechne from the car, upended in the sands of a shallow tidal pool. Police records indicate that the water’s depth was six feet. By all accounts, including those of Kennedy’s cousin and confidante Joe Gargan, the 6′ 2″ senator was a skilled swimmer.
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Nine hours later, on Saturday, July 19, after sleeping and showering in his hotel room on nearby Martha’s Vineyard, Kennedy reported the accident to police. Ostensibly, Curran’s narrative film takes no side in the debate over the senator’s guilt. Chappaquiddick depicts the chronology of events, with few editorial flourishes, that led to Kennedy’s indictment in the court of public opinion in 1969 — actions that today appear equally indefensible.
In a March 2018 telephone interview, Curran, who confesses to being a “fan of Ted Kennedy,” recalls initial reactions to the movie’s premier: “There are people who absolutely hate Ted Kennedy, and their criticism is that we are too sympathetic, but for people like me, well, it was a different time.” Chappaquiddick’s screenplay (by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) is drawn from several books about the incident, archival materials, news reports and court records. “The accident was a reckoning for that sort of patriarchal entitlement,” Curran observes. “Let’s face it, in these cases, the victim is always a woman. There are not women-led scandals like this, where a female politician drives a male page off a bridge.”
Kopechne, who held an undergraduate degree in business administration, was a former campaign worker on Robert Kennedy’s bid for the 1968 Democratic Party’s nomination for president. In her portrayal of the young woman, Kate Mara (Megan Leavey, 2017) leaves a lasting impression of an empathetic and fragile personality, disillusioned with politics. The weekend of the accident, Kopechne traveled from New Jersey to Lawrence Cottage on Chappaquiddick at Senator Kennedy’s invitation. He was piloting a craft in the Vineyard Cup regatta, and rented the house for a reunion of his late brother’s campaign workers, an equal number of single women and married men that included Gargan (Ed Helms). Curran’s film begins with Kennedy’s (Jason Clarke) arrival at an inn in Edgartown, the largest village on Martha’s Vineyard, and his meeting with Kopechne on a beach shortly afterward.
Curran recalls his reluctance to join the project when he first received the script. “I was hesitant, particularly because it was the 2016 primary season, but then I learned Jason was attached to the project,” the director says. Clarke, an Australian actor, has the square-jawed look of the senator, as well as a similar body type. “I knew Jason could capture the complexity of Ted’s personality. He gets that sense of entitlement right, and at other times, Ted’s infantile behavior as the lesser thought-of boy in the family.” Clarke’s performance hints at the depression Kennedy suffered after his brother’s assassination in 1968, and it explains Kopechne’s concern in the film for his well-being.
Curran strove for a realistic account of Chappaquiddick from the outset. “When I first met with the screenwriters, I had already done some research, and I had a list of 15 moments in the script where I wanted to know if it was their invention,” he says. “In terms of the plot and the major decisions of the facts in the case, I wanted them to be real.” After the accident, Chappaquiddick quickly moves to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, where former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) heads a team of family confidantes and lawyers; they plan the senator’s defense and the subsequent cover-up. “Dialogue was obviously invented in those scenes,” Curran says, “and so was the meeting between Ted and his father.” That weekend, most Americans were watching the first moon landing on TV, rather than news from Chappaquiddick.
Against the advice of his legal cabal, Kennedy decides to wear a neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral in an effort to garner sympathy, although he sustained no injuries in the crash. In the movie and in real life, that was a public relations debacle, as was his televised offer to resign if the people of his state no longer felt he should hold public office. In his report about the broadcast for the New York Times, James Reston wrote: “What he has really asked the people of Massachusetts is whether they want to kick a man when he is down . . .” While Curran ends Chappaquiddick with a “man-on-the-street” sequence, based on archival footage of interviews with sympathetic citizens of Massachusetts, Reston’s piece reflected the mood of the nation that week after Kopechne’s death.
Curran carefully lays out the topography of Martha’s Vineyard and Chappaquiddick in on-location shots of the ferry traveling between the two islands, and then in overhead shots from an airplane. “I felt as though there were ghosts there,” he observes. The significance of the landscape and the seascape is highlighted in a deftly edited sequence leading up to the crash. Deputy Sheriff “Huck” Look (Joe Zamparelli Jr.) stops to investigate a car parked at the Chappaquiddick intersection where a dirt road leads to the bridge and, in the other direction, a paved road leads to the ferry landing. As he approaches to ask whether the occupants are lost, the car backs up and speeds away on the bridge road. Look noted a portion of the license plate number and the time as between 12:40 and 12:45 AM Saturday morning.
According to Leo Damore’s 1988 Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up (recently rereleased by Regnery), in anticipation of Look’s testimony at the 1970 inquest, the Kennedy lawyers ensured that all the female aides fixed the departure time of Kopechne and Kennedy at about 11:30 PM on Friday. This supported Kennedy’s claim that they were to catch the midnight ferry to Edgartown. Kopechne did not take her purse, as Curran makes clear in a close-up of it after their departure, but even more damning is his inclusion of a brief shot of her after the crash, struggling to breathe in an air bubble that formed in the upturned car. John Farrar, the diver who retrieved Kopechne’s body, and who is briefly represented in the movie, has always maintained that she suffocated, and that had Kennedy reported the accident immediately, she might have survived the crash.
Chappaquiddick is notable for Curran’s economy in chronicling a narrative the complexity of which could not be represented except perhaps in a legal thriller or in a documentary. “The movie does not answer any questions,” Curran says. “Most of these people are dead, but I think there are some who are still alive who know a lot more, but they are never going to reveal it.” At first glance, Chappaquiddick appears to fail the historical and biographical “relevancy tests,” yet in retrospect, with its theme of the privileges of gender and class that were conferred upon Kennedy, who was not tried, despite the judge’s findings after the inquest, the movie could not be more contemporary.