Chappaquiddick – movie review

by Peter Calder / 18 May, 2018
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The truth remains elusive in Chappaquiddick, a drama about the scandal that tainted Ted Kennedy.

That the place name Chappaquiddick does not resonate as loudly as, say, Watergate may have to do with the family name of the man who made it famous: Kennedy.

Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy was, at some point during the night of July 18-19, 1969, in an Oldsmobile that plunged from a bridge on the title’s island in Nantucket Sound, the summer stomping ground of the Kennedy family.

It was at least seven hours before a body was pulled from the wreckage: 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne was one of the six so-called Boiler Room Girls, who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and were being hosted by Ted at a reunion party.

What happened that night remains murkier than the tide-swept pond in which the car lay, upside down, for so long. The recovery diver told the inquest that Kopechne’s body position was of someone “holding herself up to get a last breath of air”; she survived, he said, for at least three hours and suffocated in an exhausted air pocket, but did not drown. Incredibly, no autopsy was carried out.

This workmanlike dramatisation does not even glance at the theory, persuasively canvassed in an excellent BBC documentary in 1994, that Kopechne was alone in the car when it crashed, Kennedy having walked home, possibly drunk, after a cop showed an interest in their movements.

Kennedy’s own version, which had him repeatedly diving in to save her, but delaying reporting the accident for hours (during some of which she may have been alive), raises many more questions than it answers: the other version is grubbier, but less explicitly shameful.

Chappaquiddick prefers to concentrate on the political aspects of the story – the muscular image management by Kennedy henchmen, including Robert McNamara – foreshadowing the cynical silence that reigned for the remaining decades of Kennedy’s political career. Meanwhile, a subplot saturates the story in quasi-Oedipal rage as Kennedy’s tyrannical, stroke-afflicted father (Bruce Dern) gives him one-word directions (“Alibi”) and taunts him with his brothers’ greatness.

Perhaps that gets to the nub of it: when Ted (Australian Jason Clarke) shows up dripping wet at the party house, his minders ask him what happened. “I’ll never be president,” he replies. It is, one suspects, the only moment of truth in a film full of diligent obfuscation.

Video: ONE Media

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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