TL;DR – A film that exposes what is at the heart of politics, power and privilege, and how you can use that to get away with
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – No end credit scene
In the late hours of July 18th, 1969, a car drove off the side off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. There were two people on board and only one survived and so would start a political scandal because the one that survived had the surname Kennedy. For those who might not know, which is fine by the way, the Kennedys are a political dynasty that has been a key factor in American politics since the 1930s including the 35th President of the United States. Today we are going to explore an incident that had the potential to destroy that political dynasty.
So to set the scene, Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is the last of a political dynasty as his eldest brother was killed in WW2 and his other brothers were assassinated, well he did also have sisters but then this was the 1960s. Well, one weekend while he was back in town for the Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta he took the time to invite all the Boiler Room Girls, like Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and Rachel Schiff (Olivia Thirlby). These were women that were instrumental to John F. Kennedy being elected as president and everyone knew that Ted was getting ready to make his own run. After the race, they went back to a cabin on the island and drank and become merry. Ted and Mary went off together to discuss life and on the return trip after being spooked Ted was not paying attention and drove the car off the edge of a bridge. This would be a disaster but instead of calling the police Ted whet back to the party and called on his cousin Joe (Ed Helms) and a former US District Attorney Paul (Jim Gaffigan) who started the process of managing the fallout before the body is even out of the water. Now just a quick proviso that this film is dealing with real-world events that are now almost 50 years old. With this in mind, we will be discussing the events and the aftermath a little more freely than normal, so if you don’t know anything about the incident there will be [SPOILERS] ahead. Before we get into the review proper that I walked into the review already being a bit upset after getting some personal news, and while I don’t believe it impacted on my review, I can’t remove the chance entirely.
There are a lot of differing views as to what happened on that night, and Chappaquiddick does not want to go the I, Tonya (see review) route and present everything with an unreliable narrator, so it had to pick a version of the events that happened. The version they chose and the one that many agree on does not cast many of the players in a good light. Indeed, I can image there was an awful lot of political pressure for this film not to come out but this is an important story from our history to tell because it is a story of power and privilege, it is the story of a man putting his family’s good name above the life of an innocent, and a story of how everyone worked to help cover it up.
I have to be honest that this was not a fun film to see, indeed it made me equal parts angry and sad but that is what makes it a good film because it definitely made me feel emotions while watching it. I think part of that has to be the amazing work of the cast. I have to give full props to Kate Mara here whose performance trying to escape the car wrecked me. You have Joe the cousin that loves Ted like a brother, but who Ted uses because he is convenient. I’ve not seen Ed Helms take on a role like this before but he is really great in it and I look forward to seeing him in more dramatic roles in the future. Also full respect to Jason Clarke here who really captured that professional political veneer that covers deep insecurities brought on by his father’s Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. (Bruce Dern) particular brand of affection. I liked that he had a political Boston accent where there are these hints of an accent but it is mostly hidden until he becomes more upset and once again the veneer slips. All of this is helped by a great supporting cast.
At the heart of the story is how power and privilege can be used to abuse the system for your own gain, and how protecting the Kennedy name was more important than the life or dignity of another human being. So at this point, I want to take a moment to look at the story and the outcomes, which of course is taking us into [SPOILER] territory. I have mentioned that this film made me angry and that is because it clearly articulates how someone with power and privilege can tip the scales in their favour. We see Ted had been drinking and while under the influence and escaping the potential prying eyes of a police officer he raced away and while not paying attention drove the car off the bridge. However, the film makes two things very clear, one, that Mary Jo survived the crash and also probably didn’t drown, and two, there were houses in the quick walking distance that Ted could have gone to get help and could have saved Mary Jo’s life if he was thinking about her life. But he wasn’t, he was thinking of his political career so he walked back to the party, he didn’t report it until 9 am the next day, he pretended to have a medical injury from the crash, and indeed they bungled the cover-up at every stage.
If this was an episode of Law and Order, this would be the point where Jack McCoy would make a discovery, the clang clang would happen, and the perp would be found guilty and sent to jail. Not here, here even with the almost cartoonish buffoonery, he gets away with it, indeed Ted Kennedy didn’t even lose his job, being a senator for another 40 odd years. There are these points in the film where it dawns on you that even with all this almost comical failures he is going to get away with it and you become angry. This is even with me knowing the outcome before I walked into the cinemas. This is all magnificently presented to us by some really great pacing in the film, like using the Moon Landing as this juxtaposition between what the Kennedy name can do and what it is doing. So when Ted gives his statement at the end that obscures the truth in every way as the final moment of choosing to protect his family over doing what is right it felt like everything that had come before and everything that will come flows from that one choice.
In the end, do we recommend Chappaquiddick? Yes, yes we do. It expertly explores the world of power and privilege, and how that power and privilege can be used to get away with murder. This feels like a good reminder these days that this is not a new phenomenon, but we should be holding our elected officials to account.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Chappaquiddick
Directed by – John Curran
Written by – Taylor Allen & Andrew Logan
Based on – The Chappaquiddick Incident
Music by – Garth Stevenson
Cinematography by – Maryse Alberti
Edited by – Keith Fraase
Starring – Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, Taylor Nichols & Olivia Thirlby
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: na; United States: PG-13