Chappaquiddick is based on the true story of the fatal car accident involving Ted Kennedy that took place on Chappaquiddick island (just off the eastern shore of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts) and claimed the life of young campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne. It took place in 1969, a solid 20 years before I was born, but those who were alive at the time seem to remember it quite well. It was a scandal shrouded in mystery then and the exact details of what happened were never really uncovered. Nearly 50 years later, Chappaquiddick shows us what may have happened that night in what turns out to be an engaging character study of Ted Kennedy.
The film begins by setting the scene and introducing us briefly to the characters the story will be revolving around: Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), Joe Gargan (Ed Helms as Ted’s best friend and cousin), Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), and a few others. Off the bat, Teddy seems to have some sort of closeness to Mary Jo.
The Kennedy family, cousins, and friends are all gathered on Chappaquiddick island and they indulge in a night of partying. Teddy doesn’t seem necessarily happy as the night wears on, and Mary Jo and he go outside to talk for a while. They end up taking a drive and the way it’s portrayed in the film, Teddy looks away from the road for a moment and when he looks back the car is headed off the infamous bridge.
The next we see he’s sitting at water’s edge staring out at the car, visibly shaken. He walks all the way back to the party and gets Joe as well as Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) to come with him back to the bridge. Joe and Paul try to get the car open but they have no luck. Teddy promises Joe he’ll tell the authorities before they part ways.
He doesn’t decide to immediately tell them, and the rest of the film deals with him struggling with how to handle the case. It also dives into his tense relationship with his father and the pressures he felt from him, especially being the last living Kennedy of his generation. It’s a very interesting look at Ted Kennedy as well as inside the family at that time.
Jason Clarke is remarkable as Teddy. I’ve always respected him as an actor and I’ve enjoyed quite a few films he’s been in, but he’s on an entirely different level here. He IS Ted Kennedy. He does the accent well and he looks like him, but what sells the performance is the subtlety to it. It’s not over the top. It’s the perfect balance. I truly think it’s a career best performance for Clarke, and while the year is young and it’s nowhere near awards season, I’d say he’s the first name to throw into the discussion for Best Actor contender at the 2019 Oscars.
The supporting cast does a great job as well. Ed Helms really impresses as Gargan. We see the serious side of Helms in this role, and his transformation from loyal friend to realizing Kennedy’s faults and true colors is captivating. Kate Mara is solid as Mary Jo Kopechne as is Jim Gaffigan in his role as Paul Markham.
My biggest issue with the film is that it doesn’t delve as deep as it could have into what may have happened that night. There are many theories, including ones in which Kopechne was murdered to keep her silent about something (possibly that she was having an affair with Kennedy). The film goes with the story that he was a bit drunk and it was an accident. It also never really answers the question of how he got out of the car but wasn’t able to then get her out. I guess it’s implied that there’s something unusual about that, but again, it would have been nice for the writers to dig a bit deeper in regards to these intriguing questions.
It’s still a really interesting, well acted film that takes us back to the incident on Chappaquiddick island in 1969 and inside the Kennedy family at that time. I recommend seeing it!