Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Jason Clarke, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Kate Mara, Bruce Dern
Director: John Curran
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 106 Minutes
Release Date: July 10, 2018
“YOU ARE NOT A VICTIM, TED!!”
In the wee hours of July 18, 1969, a couple of family friends observed a strange sight: Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy wandering towards them. He was drunk, his clothes were wet, and he was babbling mournfully about his political career being over and how he would never be president. It took about 10 hours before the events of that night fully came to light, and many more decades for the entire truth to be known.
Chappaquiddick is the telling of that tale, and while it is mostly truthful (some truths are highlighted but moved past quickly), the resulting film, because of its slow nature and loathsome subject matter, is not exactly entertaining. In fact, had this been a work of fiction, it might have been deemed one of the most tasteless concoctions ever to come out of a writer’s imagination.
No, the events were real and horrific…not just the needless death of an innocent girl, but of the way party machinery, including judges, district attorneys and the media, colluded to save the career of a sacred namesake and banner-carrier.
Ted Kennedy (Clarke) was poised to run as the Democrat nominee for president against Richard Nixon in 1972. After the murders of brothers John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, Ted was the unlikely new hope of the party.
All that changed when he took Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara) for a ride. He was drunk, and although glossed over by the film, she WAS the married Senator’s mistress. They were spotted by law enforcement ‘parking’, but Ted took off when he noticed the police, and proceeded to drive his car at high speed off a bridge.
How Ted got himself out remains a blank, but what is known is that he panicked and fled the scene, with only his political ambitions on his mind. His friends advised him to tell the authorities; he did not until minutes after Ms. Kopechne’s body was retrieved from the car some ten hours later. A medical examiner noticed only a tiny amount of water in her lungs…his conclusion? She did not drown. This was verified by the diver who pulled her out; the car did not fill with water. She was standing up and breathing through a small air pocket. Though not mentioned in the movie, it was estimated that it took as much as 80-90 minutes for her to slowly suffocate to death, while Ted made no attempt to save her or even alert the police she was there.
As the pieces came together, Ted began his own damage control. He wrote out a statement and presented it to the sheriff, who dutifully accepted it without asking questions. He tried to persuade his friends to back up the lie that Mary Jo Kopechne was driving, since he was both intoxicated and with a suspended license. He made up an insane claim of how he swam back from shore to the car as the ferry was not operating, and of course, peppered it with tales of how he tried to heroically save her.
Once his full damage control team got together, however, they realized Ted couldn’t be trusted to do it on his own. He had contradicted himself twice in his own statement. An officer had earlier seen Ted in the driver’s seat before he sped away. Ted proclaimed he sought medical attention (he did not), and that a doctor diagnosed him with a concussion and prescribed him sedatives (something no doctor would ever do for a concussion patient). He even opted to wear a fake neck brace to Ms. Kopechne’s funeral, where it was noticed he still constantly craned his neck to look behind and see who was attending.
The team needed Ted to bring his story to the voters of Massachusetts and the American people, but could not do so with a court case pending. With a few strings pulled, the court date was moved up. Fortune favored Chappaquiddick’s short timeline in that it happened exactly at the same time as the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, which made the story easier to bury.
The district attorney, a party loyalist and Kennedy family friend, oversaw the prosecution. Despite driving dunk without a license, leaving a girl to die, lying to the police and persuading others to give false testimony, Ted was allowed to plea only to leaving the scene of an accident. He got a year’s probation and never saw the inside of a jail. All that was missing was to have the sitting FBI director hold an impromptu press conference to aver that Kennedy didn’t INTEND to kill the girl, so no reasonable person would recommend prosecution.
At the same time, Ted’s people got to the parents of Ms. Kopechne and persuaded them to forgive Ted. She was a secretary for Robert Kennedy, after all, and a firm believer in his platform, so obviously, she wouldn’t want the heir to Bobby and JFK to have his career cut short just because he left her to die.
In the end, cousin and close friend Joseph Gargan (Helms) almost persuaded Ted to offer his Senate resignation as the only decent thing left he could do. Ted instead went on live television and pleaded his case. The media followed up with interviews from the folks in Massachusetts proclaiming their faith in Ted. And Ted, of course, never left the Senate, passing away while still holding office. He never got to be president (trying only once more in 1980 but failing).
How do we view this film, and these events, today? I found it interesting that liberal Jim Gaffigan, in the featurette, proclaimed this was a story of redemption for Ted Kennedy. I don’t know if he had seen the finished movie at the time he gave that interview, but if he did, his definition of redemption is far different from the one the rest of us use. He must define “redemption” as “got away with it”.
I can’t help but feel that this story remains relevant in our own day and age, especially for those who wonder how a sitting Secretary of State and presidential candidate got away with illegally using a personal server to store confidential communications, or when the servers were subpoenaed, wiped them clean and smashed them to bits rather than turn them over. And somehow, managed to never be charged with a crime, although like with Ted, the presidency was lost.
Most of us have felt that those with power and influence, with law enforcement, judiciary and media firmly in their back pockets, live by a different set of rules. It’s essentially that notion that rips at the fabric of our republic and sews distrust in the institutions that are supposed to protect us and seek justice blindly.
It’s those kinds of depressing thoughts that make Chappaquiddick a hard film to sit through and digest. I do salute the courage it took to tell this story as factually as it is, but as the song goes, nothing ever changes.
The high definition transfer is not demanding, but nice to look at. It helps deliver the period-piece feel, and has plenty of warm colors with clear images…no distortions or artifacting that I noticed.
Considering how LOUD the opening DTS promo is, this is a very quiet film. It’s mostly dialogue-driven, but mixed down so low that I had to turn it up a bit higher than I would with most discs.
There are two extras; a production featurette and a look at the movie’s editing.
Chappaquiddick is a bold telling of a great human tragedy and political machine travesty that may be 50 years old, but whose echoes can still be felt in the events of today. It’s a political Crimes and Misdemeanors…if those who commit atrocities aren’t bothered by them, and even prosper after them, what does that say about our world?