Review: Chappaquiddick (2018)

Director: John Curran
Screenwriters: Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan
Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Bruce Dern
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking
Genre: Mystery & Suspense
Theatrical Release Date: April 6, 2018
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%

Chappaquiddick may or may not be an accurate representation of what transpired over the course of approximately one week in the late 60’s.  While the late Senator Ted Kennedy — known as the “Lion of the Senate” — expressed his guilt over what had happened, he never told us [the American people] what exactly occurred.  And, while we can’t know for sure how accurate director John Curran’s film representation truly is, it is a story that needed to be told, especially in the age of “fake news” and the importance of telling the truth. 

The tragic events take place in Edgartown, MA, on Martha’s Vineyard, the same weekend of the historic Moon landing.  Ted Kennedy (Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke) is still reeling from the death of yet another Kennedy (Bobby) and trying to deal with the fact that he is the only Kennedy brother still alive.  He’s already a Senator, though it’s clear he’s not that invested in it, and he’s not even sure that’s what he wants to do.  He gathers in Martha’s Vineyard with his cousin (The Hangover’s Ed Helms), the M.A. District Attorney (comedian Jim Gaffigan), and some of Bobby’s former campaign staffers, including the ambitious Mary Jo (House of Cards’ Kate Mara).  After drinking a few too many, Ted goes for a late-night drive with Mary Jo; and, in his drunken stupor — and perhaps wallowing in something akin to self-pity — drives into the lake.  We don’t see how he escape the submerged vehicle, just him trudging back to the cottage, soaking wet.  

Smartly, the film narrows the event down to a week.  Historical events and profiles on specific figures tend to work best when presented in a short time frame.  This is obviously a dramatization of events, and some details were most likely embellished for dramatic effect.  But that’s okay, because, like I said, this is an important story that needs to be told.  Aspects of the script might be unbelievable, but film interpretations typically are.  I half-wish there had been more background regarding Mary Jo and her relationship to the Kennedys, but her death [this is not a spoiler] is heartbreaking nonetheless. 

At face value, Australian actor Clarke doesn’t seem like the ideal choice to play a significant American political figure.  But, by the end of the movie, you completely forget his nationality and accent.  (Side-ish note: I’m always impressed with Australian, British, and Irish actors who are able to adopt American impressed.  The same can’t be said for the other way around).  He’s not as noticeably handsome as a Kennedy, but he embodies Ted Kennedy so well that that doesn’t matter.  In one moment, he’ll appear vacant and not present, and in another he’s grasping the weight of what he’s done.  It was also wonderful to see Helms and Gaffigan, best known for their comedic work, take on more dramatic roles; I don’t know why people are often surprised when comedians tackle drama.  I’ve found, at least in my own acting, sometimes comedy can be more difficult.  Helms, in particular, is great as Ted’s lawyer cousin who just wants Ted to do the right thing.  I wish we’d seen more of Mara, but her role is pivotal.  

Chappaquiddick’s biggest strength, and also its greatest downfall, is that you don’t know how to feel about Ted Kennedy at the end of the movie.  I felt pulled in two directions: despising him for lying to the American people and not coming clean about what really happened (according to the film), and sympathizing with his efforts to do what he thinks is right for himself and for his family.    

Grade: B+