In his riveting drama “Chappaquiddick,” director John Curran revisits a 1969 scandal in which Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) swerved off a little wooden bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in his home state and left his overturned vehicle submerged in shallow water. Not until 10 hours later did he report the accident. Meanwhile, trapped inside the car, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne drowned.
Before his clothes are even dry, Kennedy (Jason Clarke) pays a visit to his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and gives him the terrible news: “I’m not gonna be president.”
With a combination of careful detail and dramatic license, “Chappaquiddick” (sharply written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) is guaranteed to stir new outrage over one of the foulest-smelling stories — and one of the most audacious comebacks — in modern politics. Kennedy never did follow his brother JFK to the White House, but voters kept him in his seat for another 40 years. Though the Chappaquiddick saga now feels like ancient history, the movie arrives at a moment in which many Americans are wondering just how our leaders get away with their various transgressions. “Chappaquiddick” offers a blunt and discomfiting explanation: When it’s our guy, we prefer to look the other way.
Initially, “Chappaquiddick” puts us in Kennedy’s corner: He’s the runt of an illustrious litter, doomed to live in the shadows of his martyred brothers. We wonder whether Kennedy is a victim of bad luck when, post-accident, he screams out for the trapped Mary Jo (Kate Mara in a short but powerful turn). For guidance he calls his ailing father, Joe (Bruce Dern, radiating malevolence), and gets only one word of advice: “Alibi.”
Soon, a different Ted Kennedy emerges: The self-interested son of privilege who decides that doing the right thing is not the best idea. Clarke is wholly convincing during this transformation: Even when he tries to elicit sympathy by wearing a fake neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral, we can’t help but be impressed by his sheer gutsiness. Helms is also good as Kennedy’s conscience, Gargan, who finally draws his own moral line.
With a cabal of advisers led by Clancy Brown as former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Kennedy uses his famous name, political connections and telegenic charm to effectively distance himself from a woman he left for dead at the scene of an accident he himself caused. Near the film’s end, a real Massachusetts citizen is asked in a 1969 television interview whether he’d vote for Kennedy. “The guy’s a good guy,” the man says. “I certainly would.”