Chappaquiddick is not a film that could have been made while its subject was alive. An intellectual and unsympathetic look at a politician in a self-made crisis, its obvious moral judgements against Ted Kennedy (played here by Jason Clarke) would have made it impossible to release in the senator’s lifetime, especially as he was still serving at the time of his death. Yet, despite its desire to be a fiery polemic against the power of celebrity and self-serving politicians, John Curran’s film can never quite muster up the power to be properly riveting, generally settling for informative with the occasional burst of real anger.
Journalistically unpacking the eponymous scandal, Chappaquiddick takes a straightforward, laser focused look at the night of the accident itself and the subsequent week before Kennedy testified on television about his role in the death of campaign staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). We see Ted drunkenly flip his car off a bridge, essentially signing Mary Jo’s death sentence not only with his reckless driving , but also with his steadfast refusal to report anything to the police until far too late. Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s script unpacks every sordid detail of Ted’s reworking of his story and the brutally pragmatic efforts of his fixer team to make it all go away.
It’s bold of a film to take this clear a stance against a politician who remained popular for the rest of his life after the tragedy, but it’s always a more thought-out, academic kind of anger, when sometimes unfiltered rage might go a lot further. As voice of morality Joseph Gargan, Ed Helms is effective, but needed something meatier to get his teeth into to really compel. Chappaquiddick flounders in its scenes of Ted’s team getting ever more desperate to spin the story – it’s hard to feel the tension when you’re rooting for protagonist to be imprisoned.
Clarke gives a solid performance as Ted, though he is sometimes lost behind the prosthetics and distracting fake Kennedy teeth. Snippets of news about the moon landing play on radios all around, the last legacy of his beloved brother John, and Clarke does a fine line as a man intoxicated by his own inadequacy. We see how Ted cast himself as the victim of the story, a lie he seemingly grew to believe himself and one that alters him as a person as the story progresses. It’s a damning indictment of the man that requires a strong actor to pull off.
Mara is saddled with a more unfortunate role, having to do most of her acting in flashbacks in which she’s drowning, and the supporting cast, including Jim Gaffigan and Bruce Dern, just fade into the background without ever really making an impact. As a piece of political investigation, Chappaquiddick is impressively true to its convictions, but as a drama, there’s simply not enough to it to recommend it.