Focusing on the fateful night that torpedoed Ted Kennedy’s presidential aspirations and its immediate aftermath, “Chappaquiddick” is heavy-handed history, a film that at times seems to owe as much to “The X-Files” as the many cinematic dives into the target-rich territory that is the Kennedy clan.
Jason Clarke plays Ted, adopting a version of the longtime senator’s distinctive accent that intermittently disappears as the movie progresses. In the summer of 1969, Kennedy attended a party for young female staffers on Chappaquiddick island where much drinking was involved, offering to give a ride to 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara, a good actress without much to do here).
The trip ends tragically with Kennedy veering off a narrow bridge, and Kopechne dying in shallow water. Famously, Kennedy let hours elapse before reporting what happened, only then providing an explanation that sounded self-serving and strained at best.
“Chappaquiddick” seeks to fill in what transpired not only during those chaotic moments, followed by a panicked Kennedy calling his stroke-stricken father Joe (Bruce Dern). Almost pathetically, the so-called “black sheep” of the storied family sheepishly tells his dad, “I’m not gonna become president.”
At that point, even hobbled by his condition, Joe takes over. Assembling his team of well-placed fixers and power brokers in what’s literally a smoke-filled room, they counsel Ted and strategize about how to salvage his career – using public excitement about the moon landing as cover to stifle negative publicity – while evincing no concern about the accident’s victim.
Although Ted appears to be plagued by some guilt, any real pangs of conscience primarily reside with his aides, his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), to whom Kennedy went before approaching the local authorities. (As an aside, the movie was to have been released last fall but was delayed until now. Gargan died in December, at age 87.)
Directed without much flair by John Curran, “Chappaquiddick” joins a long list of movies and TV shows devoted to the Kennedys, from the “what might have been” quality that has surrounded them to the way wealth, power and the different mores of the times (especially in regard to the press) helped obscure their sins and excesses, and those of powerful men in general. But the movie feels thin, even by those standards.
With the benefit of hindsight, Joe’s efforts paid off. While he never became president – in part due to the shroud of that night, which never left him – weathering the scandal politically enabled Ted to serve decades in the Senate, where he was hailed as a liberal lion. “Chappaquiddick,” meanwhile, passed into the political lexicon, becoming a form of shorthand to denote a scandal that can sink a politician’s career. A story with those kind of ripples, frankly, deserved a better movie.
“Chappaquiddick” opens April 6 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13.