Special to The History Place
In one of those weird twists of history that you just couldn’t make up, on July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was at once both the luckiest and unluckiest man alive. Clearly, he was among the unluckiest, as he lost control of his car and careened off a narrow wooden bridge in Massachusetts, thereby killing Mary Jo Kopechne. And, yet, he caught one of the luckiest breaks of his life, a break set in motion a half-dozen years earlier by his martyred brother Jack.
Jack, it was, who called on America to go to moon. And, as luck had it, Apollo 11 was riveting the media and the public on the very weekend that a drunken Ted Kennedy plunged from Dike Bridge into Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island. On what otherwise would have been a slow, mid-summer news cycle, Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” pushed Kennedy off the front pages at least for part of the time. On a personal note, I was scheduled to leave for boot camp on Monday, July 21st. Instead, Armstrong having moon-walked on Sunday, Nixon declared Monday a national holiday, giving me a 24-hour reprieve. All in all, Kennedy’s crash passed by me unnoticed and unremarked. My suspicion is that many of my contemporary countrymen and women would say the same.
Meanwhile, the formidable Kennedy family/political/legal juggernaut swung into action. The first order of business, depicted in graphic detail in the film, was controlling the loose cannon who was Teddy. From swimming ashore and leaving Kopechne in the car to slowly drown, to delaying his police report for some eight or nine hours while he bathed and slept at his hotel, to issuing conflicting accounts of the crash and his physical condition -- the youngest of Joe Kennedy’s boys did his best to aggravate a terrible public-relations and legal crisis.
Filmgoers are first exposed to the malevolent pater familias, Joe Kennedy Sr., as a voice on the end of a collect call placed by Ted from the booth outside his Edgartown lodgings. After some grunts and heavy breathing, the stroke-stricken father grinds out a single word of advice: “Alibi.” But Ted can’t seem to get it right. At first Mary Jo was driving. Then, no, I was behind the wheel, but I wasn’t drinking. And I remember very little, because I was concussed and in shock. And, now I’m sedated -- except that, as New York Times reporter James Reston quickly commented, the last thing a doctor prescribes to a concussion victim is a sedative. The nadir of this charade is Teddy’s appearance at Kopechne’s funeral mass in a neck brace, which Reston notes in print, didn’t prevent the senator from craning his head to see who might be seated in the pews behind him.
Jason Clarke portrays the last of the Kennedy brothers as a man-child, alternately remorseful, terrified and arrogant by fits and starts. Ed Helms is outstanding as Kennedy cousin and gofer Joe Gargan, whose sense of integrity seems to grow in direct proportion to how much Kennedy’s seems the shrink. At the film’s climax, Gargan makes a last ditch effort to persuade the senator to resign his seat, as Kennedy predictably chooses to deliver an address to his Massachusetts constituents, cleverly laced with subtle prevarications concocted by Ted Sorenson and company.
Largely forgotten, except by her parents, during all the political and legal maneuvering, Kopechne, played by the competent Kate Mara, is more of a presence as a corpse in an open coffin at her funeral than in almost any of the scenes prior to the accident. Credit where due -- Mara gives a terrifying rendition of Kopechne’s slow demise as the water rose and Kennedy sat safely beached.
Bruce Dern contorts his face into the specter that was Joe Kennedy in the final days of a tragic and rather malevolent life. The head of the Kennedy clan and would-be dynasty only survived Teddy’s disgrace by a matter of four months.
If all of the above reads like a very unflattering portrait of Kennedy father and surviving son, let it be said that Bobby was in his grave only about a year, when Ted drove off the bridge. If the last of the line took to hitting the bottle hard, his grief and the pressure of being expected to carry the torch, are legitimate excuses. As for Joe Kennedy, even a former bootlegger, philanderer and family tyrant deserved better than the hand life dealt him.
In the event, as we are told at the end of the tale, the Commonwealth’s voters forgave Ted, reelecting him handily. Time and tragedy annealed the 'Lion of the Senate,' who became the fourth-longest-serving U.S. Senator in our history.
Chappaquiddick is certainly not a great film. You’ll see no indelible performances, such as Gary Oldman gave us in The Darkest Hour last year. As a sort of wrapping up of the Kennedy saga, the film compliments a pair of recent cinematic excursions that includes Parkland (2013) and Jackie (2016). None are stellar works of art or historiography. But together, they have reminded a new generation of Americans of the larger-than-life tragedy of 20th century America’s most prominent political family.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking.
Jim Castagnera is a Principal in Holland Media Services, LLC. He is the author of 20 books, including Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom. During the past five years he has reviewed more than 50 films for The History Place.