“It’s not the crime but the cover-up which causes the problem,” or so the saying goes. Ted Kennedy’s rendezvous with disaster on Chappaquiddick Island in July 1969 is certainly a prime example.
In his movie Chappaquiddick John Curran (whose films include The Painted Veil, a lush version of a Somerset Maugham novel) tackles the story in a fairly straight forward manner. His shots give an authentic sense of time and place. The script from two first time movie writers, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, while clumsy in part, serves to tell the tale.
There is a gathering at a private cabin on the island, a windswept, sparsely populated patch of ground separated by a short ferry ride from Edgartown, an established resort town on trendy Martha’s Vineyard. Joe Gargan, Kennedy’s cousin and occasional fixer is the man in charge.
The reason for the event is to thank the Boiler Girls, six young women who worked on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Besides the “girls” the other guests with Kennedy are six or seven of his friends and confidantes, all older men and mostly married to women not on the site. Liquor abounds. As the day develops there is talk of Kennedy, only 37 at the time, gearing up for a presidential run in 1972.
During the day and evening Kennedy, who has a reputation as a philanderer, focuses on one young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne. They leave the party for a private conversation and eventually near midnight head down a dark dirt road with Kennedy driving. He comes to a bridge and drives off it into the water. He escapes, she does not.
From here the story progresses rapidly and things get out of control. Kennedy, his family and political advisors conduct a cover-up which few believe. The whole thing becomes a tragedy of errors, culminated by a fulsome speech to the nation written surprisingly by Ted Sorenson the Kennedys’ most admired wordsmith.
Like all historical narratives the film is part fact and part speculation. The speculative parts, especially the conversations between Kennedy and Mary Jo, are the least successful. Kennedy is played, adequately if not memorably, by the Australian actor Jason Clark. Bruce Dern has a cameo as Kennedy’s father Joseph Kennedy. Due to his severe disability most commentators doubt his ability to lead the cover-up as implied in the film. Ed Helms as Joe Gargan, the poor cousin, gives possibly the best performance of the large cast. He proves to be the noblest Kennedy of them all.
Curran’s movie ends with Kennedy’s speech and a brief afterward concerning some of the characters. It omits, however, anything about the lives of the remaining Boiler Girls. Of the five, three became lawyers in New England, one a lobbyist in Washington D.C. and one a successful literary agent in New York City. All have had long and successful lives. Mary Jo Kopechne, on the other hand, was dead at 28.
Chappaquiddick is currently showing at the Regal Santiam Theater.