It’s borderline impressive that someone made a politically tinged piece of media like Chappaquiddick in the year of 2018 and have it say so little, even inadvertently. I’m not saying this because this new John Curran directed movie doesn’t reinforce my already held political beliefs, rather, because it struck me as strange how this movie could spend so much time on a real-life event like the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick disaster and not come away with something to say, even just in an esoteric sense instead of commentating on specific modern issues. Chappaquiddick as a film isn’t bad, at it’s worst moments it’s just “meh”, but it’s lack of substantive themes do speak to the more paint-by-numbers nature of the production that ends up leaving it feeling more underwhelming than engaging.
The real-life story Chappaquiddick deals with revolves around Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), a Senator and member of the prestigious Kennedy family, who was behind the wheel of an automobile when it fell off the Dike Bridge and into the lake below. Kennedy survived the crash but the only other passenger in the car, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), perished, apparently drowning after the car hit the water. Once emerging from the water, Kennedy chooses to not call the police about this event, arousing immediate suspicion from the public that something shady has gone down. Ted Kennedy, whether he admits or not, is way in over his head and he must figure out what to do now that his sterling reputation is on the line.
From here, we get to follow a week in Ted Kennedy’s life as he grapples with the aftereffects of what happened that fateful night in Massachusetts. Among those aftereffects is how this controversy impacts Ted’s already fractured relationship with his dad, played by Bruce Dern, as well as strategists figuring out how to salvage Ted’s public image. Most of what transpires in this extended examination of Ted Kennedy is functional, but not altogether fascinating. There are interesting elements brought up in this storyline, but it feels like Chappaquiddick is more interested in racing through depictions of the various events in Ted Kennedy’s life the week after the Chappaquiddick Incident rather than actually lending insight into those events.
Just doing a straightforward retelling of the aftermath of the Chappaquiddick Incident ends up feeling perfunctory more than anything else and a brief digression in tone midway through the movie indicates this could have been a far more interesting project. Such a digression emerges when Ted Kennedy gets waves of advice from a roomful of political strategists trying to guide Kennedy into what to do next. Seeing dark humor wrung from the tragically true-to-life situation of how a roomful of guys can only see chances for salvaging a guy’s political career in the tragic death of a young woman has shades of The Coen Brothers and Armando Iannucci to it and feels like the rare scene where Chappaquiddick has some blood moving through its veins.
The same goes for another darkly comic scene where Kennedy wears a fake neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral in order to earn sympathy from the public. Those two scenes are exceptions rather than the rule though, the rest of Chappaquiddick has a tendency to resemble more of a Cliffnotes version of historical events rather than a riveting examination of the past. However, at least they got a good performance out of it’s take on Ted Kennedy. Jason Clarke, an underrated actor in the modern Hollywood landscape, does a fine job in the role, especially in making Ted Kennedy seem very much like a separate individual compared to his past role and speaking in a realistic New England accent, even the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch couldn’t pull that kind of accent off. Ed Helms is surprisingly undistracting in a rare dramatic role while Bruce Dern and especially Clancy Brown turn in solid work in supporting performances.
Director John Curran has certainly got a talented group of actors here to make something memorable, but Chappaquiddick too often feels like it’s missing any potential opportunities to make a movie that was at all more lasting, most notably in how Kate Mara is wasted in a throwaway role as Mary Jo Kopechne. Chappaquiddick takes a cue from Ted Kennedy and his political strategizers in forgetting all about Kopechne, failing to flesh her out as a character and thus giving Kate Mara nothing to do. Yet another instance of how Chappaquiddick just can’t seem to use the tools at its disposal to make something distinctive, instead settling for a routine retelling of the Chappaquiddick Incident.