Jason Clarke, who hails from Winton, Queensland, and who cut his acting teeth in Australian television and films from the mid-1990s, gives a towering performance as the ill-fated Teddy Kennedy in Chappaquiddick, a sobering insight into the 1969 tragedy that changed the course of America. Clarke not only looks a bit like Kennedy but sounds like him too — I’m no expert on accents, but that distinctive Boston drawl sounds exactly right. It is more than an impersonation: Clarke nails the character of the man, the deeply flawed, woefully inadequate younger brother of two great men.
In the summer of 1969, Edward Kennedy, US senator for Massachusetts, was still walking in the shadow of his assassinated brothers, president John Kennedy, murdered in 1963, and former attorney-general and presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy, murdered in 1968. The nation assumed that Teddy would run against Nixon for the presidency in 1972, though there were understandable fears that, given the fate of his brothers, his life might also be in danger. As it turned out, Teddy’s worst enemy was himself.
On July 18, just a few hours before the landing on the moon, Teddy was attending the annual regatta in Martha’s Vineyard, close to the small island of Chappaquiddick, where the Kennedy family owned a cottage. There was a party atmosphere. Twelve Kennedy staffers who had worked on Bobby’s campaign had gathered for a reunion. Half of them were unmarried women in their 20s, known as “the Boiler Room girls”, and the other half were older married men. Among them was 28-yearold Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), who had worked as a secretary for Bobby Kennedy but had left Washington after his assassination. Teddy — according to the film — was keen to persuade her to return and work for him.
Writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, for their first produced screenplay, have imagined what happened during that night and its aftermath. What’s described in the film is conjecture, but it rings brutally true. Teddy was drinking too much — whiskey, straight from the bottle — yet he volunteered to drive Mary Jo back to where she was staying.
Did he have a sexual motive? Possibly, even probably, but the film doesn’t dwell too much on this. At any rate, he took pains to avoid a local cop patrolling the area, presumably not wanting to be seen alone with an attractive young woman who was not his wife but also because he feared his driver’s licence might have expired. Then, in a history-defining split second of inattention, he drove off the wooden Chappaquiddick Bridge into shallow water.
Kennedy managed to extricate himself from the overturned and partly submerged car and, after the most desultory attempt to see what had happened to Mary Jo, headed back to his lodgings on foot. At the cottage he encountered his cousin, and lawyer, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) Chappaquiddick (M) National release from Thursday On Body and Soul (Testrol es lelekrol) (tbc) Limited release from Thursday and told him: “We’ve got a problem.” Gargan and another close friend, Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), who was attorney-general of Massachusetts, advised him to report the matter immediately, but instead he went to bed and didn’t report the accident until the following day. By the time he finally made a report to the local sheriff, traces of alcohol would no longer have shown up in his system.
The film makes no bones about the fact that Kennedy acted in a cowardly and irresponsible fashion, and that Mary Jo’s life might have been saved if the accident had been reported immediately. It’s also clear that the brains trust of lawyers and fixers who converged on Martha’s Vineyard the following day knew exactly what they were doing — their No 1 aim was to protect their man and, in the process, help conceal a felony.
Among those present were some very distinguished political figures from the Democratic Party, including Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) and former secretary of state Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown). Overshadowing them all in terms of ruthlessness is the aged, crippled patriarch of
Jason Clarke, right, as Teddy Kennedy in
Chappaquiddick; the real car in which passenger Mary Jo Kopechne was killed in 1969 is raised from the water, inset
Alexandra Borbely as Maria in Ildiko Enyedi’s On Body and Soul