Anyone old enough to remember the Chappaquiddick incident, and even many of those who are too young to remember it, probably think there is little new to learn about what happened there almost 50 years ago.
The new film doesn’t reveal much new, but handles the story from a perspective that seeks neither to demonize Ted Kennedy or to excuse him.
It’s a difficult road to hoe, but Jason Clarke and the rest are ultimately successful. The story of how a U.S. senator drove off a bridge and escaped while his female passenger died is ultimately successful because the entire film is underplayed. There aren’t many tears or much screaming. Perhaps the most demonstrative moment occurs when an aged and sick Joseph Kennedy strikes his last remaining son’s face.
Some have suggested this is the way to portray history, and I agree. What is most clear after watching the film is how much the world has changed, and yet human beings remain the same. Clarke is deft at expressing fear mixed with arrogance, but his constituents seem more gullible than they would be today.
Still, Kennedy was elected to the Massachusetts senate seat seven times, making him one of the nation’s longest serving senators. The movie includes “man on the street” interviews of constituents, a number of whom express their belief in Kennedy’s story.
The film emphasizes Kennedy’s relationship with his father as well as two of his closest aides, whom he summons that night before contacting police. Both dive into the chilly waters in an effort to free Mary Jo Kopechne, but are unsuccessful. One of these aides is estranged from the senator at the end of the film because of his refusal to resign his senate seat.
As might be expected, the film speculates a bit. But there is no definite suggestion that Kennedy and Kopechne were having an affair.
But it is clear about the fact that drinking happened at the party both attended before the accident, and efforts were made to cover that up.
Chappaquiddick, in the end, might not mean much today because so many years have passed since 1969, when it happened. But it still reflects how human beings fail sometimes in the moments most critical in their lives.