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‘Chappaquiddick’ delves into Ted Kennedy, Dike Bridge mystery

Jason Clarke stars as Ted Kennedy in "Chappaquiddick." / Entertainment Studios / Claire Folger

The speed of Ted Kennedy’s car as it plunged off Dike Bridge, flipped and crashed in the cold waters off Chappaquiddick Island — like so many facts of that fateful summer night in 1969 — remains unknown.

But actor Jason Clarke knows firsthand how terrifying it must have felt.

“It was dark, freezing cold, you’re going down, the car fills up with water, you’re holding your breath,” says Clarke, recalling the heart-racing sensations he felt when filming that scene in “Chappaquiddick,” which opens April 6. In Clarke’s case, he had it easy.

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In his crash, which serves as a pivotal sequence in the film in which Clarke plays the young senator Kennedy and Kate Mara co-stars as his tragic passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, every move of the car was carefully choreographed. The bridge, a replica of the real wooden structure in Massachusetts built on a set in Mexico, was surrounded by a Hollywood film crew. An emergency diver was present. And an oxygen tank and mask were hidden under the seat, which Clarke could grab if he ran out of air.

“You wait for the bubbles to clear the camera before you’ve got to swim out a little window,” he says. “Yeah, I was apprehensive, even knowing what was to come.”

For Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, aspiring millennial screenwriters who grew up in Dallas, the name Chappaquiddick meant nothing. It was just a mouthful of consonants uttered by Bill Maher one evening 10 years ago on his HBO talk show, referring to some heartbreaking event that cost Kennedy all hope of becoming president. Curious, they started researching, and were stunned by the facts of the case.

Like how the youngest member of the storied Kennedy clan had endured the deaths of four siblings, including Jack and Bobby, a U.S. president and senator, both shot in the head.

How Ted, though married, spent that evening partying with former campaign workers for Bobby. How he and one of those workers, Kopechne, a 28-year-old New Jersey native, drove off into the night, purportedly to drop her at the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. How en route, they veered off onto a dirt road that led to a bridge, ridiculously narrow and without guardrails. How Ted somehow survived the crash — and Kopechne, trapped inside the overturned, submerged vehicle, did not.

With the help of a cousin, Joe Gargan (played by Ed Helms) and friend, Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), Kennedy made his way back to his hotel and didn’t report the crash for 10 hours. It seems they presumed she was dead, though she may have been gasping for breath in an air pocket for who knows how long.

And all on the same weekend that NASA fulfilled brother Jack’s promise and landed a man on the moon.

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Allen still has unresolved feelings about the case.

“On the one hand, I feel this wealth of sadness about Mary Jo’s death,” Allen says. “On the other hand, I have a lot of love for Kennedy’s policies . . . his endorsement of Barack Obama. His impact on the world was incredibly valuable.”

And yet this part of his story reads like fiction.

“It’s like ‘Crime and Punishment,’ like a Dostoyevsky novel,” Clarke says.

GETTING BENEATH THE SURFACE

When Clarke was shooting the crash sequence, buffeted by the cold, rushing water in an overturned car, he became disoriented. In one take, the Australian actor known for roles in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Terminator Genisys” was unaware he was upside down.

“The water came in and I got pushed into the camera and tangled up,” he recalls.

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The film is fueled by that kind of authenticity, from the screenwriters’ scouring of the inquest transcript, to director John Curran’s insistence that in addition to the stunt work shot in Mexico they also film on location in Chappaquiddick.

While there, Clarke jumped into the waterway near the Dike Bridge. “The current was strong, a lot stronger than it looks,” he says.

Just as strong is the wave of supposition and innuendo that has forever swirled around this case, much of it linked to Kopechne. Was she, perhaps, the driver? Or pregnant? Or murdered because she was pregnant? Like the Kennedy assassinations preceding it, the Chappaquiddick tale has tantalized conspiracy theorists, Kennedy bashers and everyone in between. Yet somehow, with all the chatter, little sense of Kopechne, the flesh-and-blood woman, has emerged — until now.

“Mary Jo was a smart, selfless person who wanted to be a loyal public servant,” Logan says.

Even her portrayal in the media — the winsome blonde who got in a car with the married Kennedy — seemed designed to titillate. But the more Allen and Logan investigated, the more she appeared to be a dedicated worker with a bright future as a political consultant. (They found no proof of an affair.)

“It felt important to me that her story was told, that her legacy was justly honored,” Logan says.

Exactly how Ted Kennedy, who died in 2009 of brain cancer, will ultimately be remembered is still unclear. The film is a potent reminder of a shadow that this “lion of the senate,” respected for his power and influence, could never quite shake.

“He is his own worst enemy,” Allen says. “He acts as the film’s protagonist and antagonist.”

As for Clarke, his reaction on first reading the script was anger. And now? “I think it’s human to have empathy and for an actor it’s essential,” he says. For him, he says, Ted Kennedy will remain a nuanced figure of great accomplishment, and tremendous wrongdoing.

“You can’t escape the fact that the man walked away and left a woman in a car,” Clarke says. “I presume he assumed she was dead. And you can understand how that’s possible. But still the act in itself is like — ” He trails off, then sighs. “You’d hope, in any other circumstance, you wouldn’t do that yourself.”