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Movie review: 'Chappaquiddick' plays it fair, appeasing neither Kennedy family fans nor its haters

By: Alan Zilberman The Washington Post
April 6, 2018 Updated: April 6, 2018 at 5:15 am
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Jason Clarke, center, stars in "Chappaquiddick" as Sen. Ted Kennedy. MUST CREDIT: Claire Folger, Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Starring Kate Mara, Clancy Brown, Olivia Thirlby, Jason Clarke, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern; directed by John Curran; 101 minutes; PG-13 for mature thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language and smoking.

Years before Watergate, the name Chappaquiddick became shorthand for political scandal. While the world was celebrating the 1969 moon landing by Apollo 11 astronauts - the legacy of John Kennedy's belief in space exploration - the late president's younger brother was in the midst of a devastating fall from grace.

Taking its name from the Massachusetts island where Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge, resulting in the death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, the movie "Chappaquiddick" dramatizes that incident and its scandalous fallout, portraying Kennedy as a complex, contradictory figure.

It is the summer of 1969, and Ted (Jason Clarke) is still reeling from the assassination of his brother Bobby a year earlier. In his late 30s, Ted is already a Massachusetts senator, and his friends believe he is positioned well for a presidential run.

After a boat race, Ted and his friends have a party on Chappaquiddick, adjacent to Martha's Vineyard. Ted offers a ride to Mary Jo (Kate Mara), one of Bobby's former secretaries, and off they go. An accident seems inevitable since Ted is drunk, and, surely enough, his car veers into a pond. Ted escapes, while Mary Jo drowns. The film follows Ted as he tries to pre-empt the backlash, maintaining his sympathetic public persona.

Clarke avoids caricature, portraying Kennedy as a man who loathes - yet takes advantage of - the heavy expectations that fall on his shoulders. While he experiences genuine grief over Mary Jo's death, that doesn't hinder his capacity for manipulation.

The screenplay (by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) strongly implies that Ted was still in a depressive state in 1969. The film doesn't dwell on Ted's drinking habits, treating them matter-of-factly, and implies that his relationship with Mary Jo was strictly platonic.

That does not mean that "Chappaquiddick" lets Ted off the hook. On the contrary, the details of the crime and its coverup are even more damning than the incident's gossipy aspects would suggest.

"Chappaquiddick" provides just enough detail to allow us to draw our own conclusions, yet no viewer will think of Ted in quite the same way. For a true-crime film about a well-documented incident, "Chappaquiddick's" ability to preserve ambiguity is remarkable in itself.

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