Watson Reviews: Chappaquidick (Spoiler Free)

With his three older brothers dead, Ted Kennedy was the last son of the storied family; next in line for Camelot and the presidency. Chappaquidick is the story of why he never lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

In 1969, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Alderin were headed to the moon, Ted Kennedy, his cousin, some friends, and several female volunteers from his brother Bobby’s campaign descended upon Martha’s Vineyard for a party.

During the course of the evening, Ted was driving drunk with a young secretary named Mary Jo Kopechne and drove off a narrow bridge into the water.

Kopechne drowned and Ted took half a day reporting it to the police.

The film covers the accident briefly, but the focus is more on the events that follow; the lies and cover up designed to protect the Kennedy name and preserve Ted’s chances at the White House.

WHAT WORKED:

  • Ted Kennedy was an actual character and not just a caricature. Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) embodies the late Senator from Massachusetts. It is tricky playing someone so famous from the TV era. There are 50 years of footage of Ted for us to compare this performance to and yet Clarke delivers a fully fleshed character.
  • The film used a big actress in a small role very effectively. Kate Mara (who went to space in Fantastic Four) has very little screen time as the tragic figure Kopechne before the accident. Yet continuous flashbacks and nightmares of Kennedy keep her close to the narrative and she does a fantastic job.
  • The era was well captured but the film still felt modern. This is difficult with more recent period pieces, but the filmmakers did a nice job here. There were some interesting parallels to what people in the modern age do to preserve their place at the head of the table.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK:

  • The film’s voice of conscience was ineffective. I think the filmmakers were trying to be harder on Kennedy in the film, but that commentary fails because Ed Helms (The Hangover) does not Driver in his very important role as Ted’s morally burdened cousin. Helms, who is usually great, doesn’t have the chops necessary to counterbalance the old white men who make this seem like the only course of action.
  • Assumes the least controversial version of the facts instead of preserving ambiguity.  While the film shows Ted at his worst after the accident, it seems to ascribe purer, chaste motives before the fact. Whether his evening with Kopechne was an inappropriate relationship still seems to be up in the air. The film would have been better had the producers left much of that to the imagination of the viewer.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Kennedy Privilege is the whitest of White Privilege. Ted Kennedy would go on to do amazing things in public service; from education to health care. But this film, even as neutral as it gets at times, shows that he was not only morally ineligible for the presidency, but his career in the Senate should have also ended. Chappaquidick misses the target in a few areas, but overall it does drive a certain sense of what people will do to stay in power.

Overall, I give CHAPPAQUIDICK 7.5Cue Cards From the Heart out of 10.

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