scene from press conference in Chappaquiddick film

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Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

A Troubling Story, Fairly Examined

| published April 15, 2018 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

June 6 will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, shot moments after giving a brief victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles thanking his supporters and the people of California for giving him a major primary victory. Most political thinking at the time suggest that Bobby Kennedy would have secured the Democratic nomination when the party met in Chicago, besting his only major remaining political rival, Hubert Humphrey.

Instead, Kennedy’s tragic death once again forced the hand of political history, thrusting the torch almost immediately into the hands of the fourth son of Joseph P. Kennedy, the family patriarch who had already invested lavish fortune and exertion of influence on the careers and trajectories of his three oldest sons. Edward M. Kennedy, popularly known as Ted or Teddy, became the face of the great political clan at the relatively young age of 36.

Still, of all the bright familial torches in American history, none would be as automatically compelling as that intense flame of the Kennedy name. Thus, at age 36, Ted Kennedy was a presumed—if not inevitable—candidate for President. Already a U.S. Senator since the age of 30 (he was first elected by the voters of Massachusetts in 1962), he became the sole surviving male heir to what has been the most famous political dynasty since the republic’s founding in 1776. Long since knighted by the efforts of his siblings and the exertions of his father, Teddy assumed—in the hours and days after Bobby’s passing—the largest chair at the Round Table, and its large and loyal entourage of fellow knights, sages, soothsayers, and court jesters.

So it was perhaps inevitable that the events of July 18, 1969 would draw that circle together for yet another round of crisis management—this time not to grieve for the loss of another brother, nor to diffuse the certainty of war while assuaging the fears of humanity, but instead to save the political career of the last of that generation of great knights.

A new film directed by John Curran, and based on a screenplay by Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen, attempts to illuminate the tragic events of one week in the life of Teddy Kennedy—the same week, in an oddity of history not lost even amongst the Kennedy’s shrewdest thinkers at the time, that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon.

Starring Jason Clarke in the role of Senator Kennedy, Chappaquiddick—shot almost entirely on location in Boston, on Martha’s Vineyard, and Chappaquiddick Island—tells the grim story of a young Senator, his small but fiercely loyal entourage of political mechanics, and a group of young women known within that circle as the Boiler Room Girls—women, mostly in the mid-to-late 20s, who were holdovers from the campaign of Bobby Kennedy one year before.

The facts of the weekend are simple, and even familiar within the context of Kennedy politics: a weekend party was planned and carried out at a cottage on a small coastal island of Chappaquiddick, just across the waters from Martha’s Vineyard. The weather was warm, beer and alcohol readily available, and—after a few phone calls between Kennedy and his first cousin, Joey Gargan, extra rooms in local inns, snacks, more beer, hard liquor, ice, cars, and other particulars were secured. So far, so good—just another weekend of partying and politics.

But after a few drinks—by the accounts of some witnesses at the party late that night—five to seven drinks, the young Senator and a young campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne, climbed into Kennedy’s Oldsmobile 88 and went driving, apparently toward the beach. A local deputy spotted the car pulled off the road near a small intersection; when he attempted to see if the driver needed assistance, the black four door car sped off into the night. Racing down a road paved with only oyster shell and sand, Kennedy misjudged the angle of a small wooden bridge which traverses shallow brackish waters which separate Chappaquiddick Island from the barrier island. The car tumbled violently off the bridge, landing upside-down in the water, its wheels barely touching the surface, its roof slightly embedded in the silt and sand below. Kennedy manages to escape from the car, but his companion does not.

Instead of immediately reporting the accident to the local police, Kennedy goes on an inexplicable and rambling journey—returning first on foot to the cottage, where he seeks help from Gargan and another friend, Paul Markham, a U.S. Attorney. Returning to the bridge, Gargan and Markham, while Kennedy watches, dive into the water and attempt to extract Kopechne, unsure if she is alive or dead, or even if she remains in the car. Gargan and Markham attempt to convince Kennedy to contact the police, but Kennedy seems disoriented and unsure. Later, he will tell the police that instead of summoning the ferry (available in those days for emergencies even after normally-scheduled runs), he swims the channel to return to the mainland, nearly drowning in the process. Once in town, he does not contact the police, nor does he use available pay phones or phones in hotels. Instead, he proceeds through more inexplicable and murky activities: bathing, shaving, changing clothes, attempting to nap, then, making a few phone calls to family and friends. The next morning, about the time the car is first spotted by locals, Kennedy makes more personal calls, then joins friends for brunch at a small restaurant. Meanwhile police and rescue workers are at the scene of the accident, and a check on the tag on the car has already revealed that it belongs to Kennedy. Divers remove Kopechne’s body from the car, and rigor mortis seems to reveal that she had struggled to keep her head tucked into the only pocket of air remaining inside the vehicle.

Only after Markham and Gargan intervene directly does Kennedy finally make his way to the police station to file a report. Using the chief of police’s personal phone line (the chief is still at the scene of the accident), Kennedy calls the Kopchne family to inform them of her death, though in fact her death has not yet been established. Minutes after meeting with the police chief, Kennedy and his friends arrange to get him back to Hyannis Port, where he can avoid reporters and the growing media frenzy. There, an ad hoc committee of Kennedy savants, intellectuals and political fixers have gathered—among them Ted Sorensen, Richard Goodwin, Sargent Shriver, Robert McNamara, John Tunney, and brother-in-law Stephen E. Smith.

Over the next hours and days his story evolves, morphs, changes—buffeted by a variety of personal whims and the heavy-handed direction of the others. Family influence is brought to bear, even as contradictions in Kennedy’s behavior and his statements are gaining exposure. Circled around the television, it becomes clear that the group hopes the moon landing will overshadow the tragic events at Chappaquiddick (indeed, the events surrounding the Apollo 11 mission eclipse all other news for several days), and delay any rush to judgment by the press. Despite a variety of transparent and foolhardy ploys to divert attention or to illicit sympathy (at one point Kennedy comically dons a medical neck-brace to attend Kopechne’s funeral), attempts to contain the fiasco unravel. Finally, in a last mea culpa, Kennedy and his circle decide that what is needed is a televised “confession,” and the young Senator gains network airtime to make his case, offering to resign from the Senate if the people of Massachusetts deem it necessary. His speech, though seemingly heartfelt and genuine in its sorrow, is notable even now for its obvious lack of explanation for what really happened and why.

Ultimately, Kennedy’s seat in the Senate would remain safely his—a desk and office he would occupy for another 40 years. But he would never be President, the job he may have longed for, or perhaps felt he was obliged to seek through the alignments of ill-fated stars. The good news for filmgoers who care about political history is that Curran’s movie is neither a hatchet-job, as some liberals on social media have suggested (why are there liberals out there who still find it necessary to defend this last of the great Kennedy men?), nor is it a glossy, puff-piece, marketing brochure for the Kennedy franchise, as a more than a few conservatives have suggested (likewise, is it necessary after all these decades to beat the dead equine beyond pulpy recognition?). The movie actually sticks to the facts as they are known, only speculates loosely—sometimes within a sort of running interior set of recollections by Kennedy—and treats everyone, the clowns, jesters, knaves and would-be do-gooders, with evenness and sympathy.

Central to the movie’s background energy is the uneasy relationship between the family members (in this case most especially Teddy) and the once domineering, controlling Joseph Kennedy, Sr., by the time of Chappaquiddick partially paralyzed by a stroke, his face frozen in a kind of penetrating, bitter stare, and the eyes particularly troubling for Teddy, who was never in real life able to find emotional solace in the Old Man. In the film, as in real life, Joe Senior—played with a disturbingly icy aplomb by Bruce Dern—acts as a sort of Deus en machina to the overall story, even as he barely speaks and is unable to move beyond the confines of his wheelchair. At the beginning of the crisis, the Old Man bluntly suggests that Teddy lie about the events, whispering only “alibi” several times. As the plot unfolds over the next days, Joe Senior becomes ever more frustrated with his son’s inept and bumbling attempts to take control of the expanding mess.

Teddy’s fear and loathing of his father is steeped in his understanding that he, as the trouble-making son lacks (indeed perhaps never possessed), any of the famous natural or manufactured attributes of his brothers, a fact that he reminds himself of on several occasions throughout the movie. In that respect, the film effectively shows Teddy as both a victim of the family name, as well as a frequent greedy abuser of its inherent privilege: ordering Kennedy lackeys to take care of unpleasant tasks, informing Gargan and Markham (both attorneys) he intends to lie to police, and worrying aloud about media damage control and how to best spin the story for reporters. Yet despite the bouts of narcissism, the film enables us to feel deep sympathy to his plight at times, for he acknowledges he has little of the ambition, charisma, charm, brilliance or ruthlessness of the older siblings—a fact surely annoying to the Old Man in the wheelchair. Teddy feels trapped by his family’s last name, and never asked nor desired the immense family and political burdens which are now his alone.

The biggest surprise of the film: Jason Clarke instantly and fully captures the look, physique, mood and occasional domineering stature of Ted Kennedy, while also reaching deeply within his acting skillset to bring both hatred and compassion to Kennedy’s complex personality. Director Curran and lead actor Clarke, however, may fall short—possibly a deliberate act—of pulling the trigger completely, as at times we are unable to penetrate the real reasons for Kennedy’s irresponsible behavior during that tragic weekend, nor his binges of narcissistic manipulations over the following days.

Other than by dint of intervention by his father, it is also unclear why Teddy allowed a committee of Kennedy-hangers-on to gain such enormous, and at time unfortunate, sway over the spin of events—deflecting, for example, an autopsy of Kopechne, and insuring the a DA entirely sympathetic to the Kennedy clan is appointed to give the incident a cursory look. His own crisis of conscience in the film shows him as shockingly vulnerable to the heavy-handed damage control of the likes of McNamara, Sorensen, Goodwin and others. Conversely, that same cadre of top-shelf Kennedy hacks are amazed at Teddy’s foolishness and inattention: among the things they learn from Teddy’s own mouth: his license to drive in Massachusetts has long expired, and he has no valid insurance on the vehicle—petty matters he had hoped someone else would have taken care of long before. Kennedy is also unsure—or has no memory—of how many drinks he actually consumed at the party house.

Gargan (played perfectly by Ed Helms) and Markham (played by Jim Gaffigan) act as Shakespearean confidantes, seemingly in a constant state of advising Kennedy to do the right thing, but easily buffeted by the larger powers already attempting to spin a sympathetic tale out of the death of a young woman. Helms portrays the loyal but continuously burdened Gargan, stricken by conscience, slowly unravelling under the pressure, losing his faith in the Kennedy name as the manipulations and obfuscations grow deeper. The film’s arrival in theaters coincides with the months and weeks of retrospectives planned ahead of the anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, a fact which may boost the movie’s potential at the box office, but also help it gain traction in video streaming, DVD sales and premium channel traction.

The timing of the film may also be a happy accident in an age in which the Me-Too Movement has coalesced so strikingly around the infamous burning effigies of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Al Franken and scores of others. Kennedy and the other men used their power to seduce women, most of them volunteers. Though there has never been much evidence to indicate that the married Kennedy and the young Kopechne consummated first flickers of an illicit affair, the fact that a central requirement of that infamous weekend party at Chappaquiddick was that a legion of young women be present—which the men at the party intended to ply with alcohol—reveals how the intersection of politics, booze, and sex has been for too long an established condition. The Boiler Room girls, as numerous investigative studies have revealed, were loyal to a fault, and were expected to reveal nothing of that weekend’s activities to police, reporters, or anyone else, for that matter.

The film also reveals how quickly the Kennedy organization—as a sort of collective hive—moved to defuse or diffuse a threat. In the hours after the accident, houseguests at the cottage were quickly herded out the door, told to take everything of substance with them, dodge the cops, avoid all reporters, and head straight home. Gargan and others scrub the house (almost literally), removing the innumerable beer empties and depleted whiskey bottles and leaving only a few soft drink containers. On his way out of town, Kennedy tells the police chief he will be back in touch, but in fact never talks to him again, and political influence is used on a staggering scale to ensure none of the party guests from that weekend are interviewed by police or law enforcement (until much, much later). Top Kennedy loyalists lean on editors of major newspapers—notably the Washington Post—to soften the story, urging them to spin it favorably for the man who may soon run for President.

In real life, Kennedy’s use of the chief’s office while the chief was submerged in the murky waters of the accident scene was far more troubling and suspect than what is depicted in the film. Kennedy made scores of long distance phone calls from the chief’s desk, mobilizing assistance, tipping friendly reporters, rallying family and friends, calling in political favors, moving chess pieces, spinning varying version of events, and even—with the help of Markham—writing his own “statement” to police. By the time the chief arrived to his own office, Ted Kennedy was preparing to depart, and—as it turned out—never return.

Oddly, the film has one notable flaw: it is too short. Historical-dramas of this ilk and complexity normally require more screen time than the 101 minutes which Chappaquiddick offers. In part, this is because Curran wasted no time nor did he bore us with too much background information; a filmmaker’s temptation when dealing with the subject of the Kennedy dynasty might be to tell too much story, in this context the compelling prequels offered by parents and siblings. But Chappaquiddick, for all its exceptional detail on the known facts of the case, glosses over the background story, especially the legal machinations which began to evolve later that same week, and evolved more over the following weeks. In reality, any case against Kennedy was more or less made to disappear: he was charged only with leaving the scene of an accident, giving a short sentence—suspended immediately—and then extended probation of less than a year. The movie ends with his scripted speech to voters.

Kennedy’s televised speech did not go down well with many Americans, and soured opinion amongst much of the press, even those newspapers and TV reporters inclined toward friendliness toward Camelot. But his mea culpa effectively saved him in Massachusetts, where he would not only run the next time around, but where he would remain a fixture for four additional decades, eventually becoming the fourth longest serving Senator in U.S. history. His re-elections became a formality each election cycle, save for a robust challenge from a young Mitt Romney in 1994; that year, Kennedy won by only 58%, his only “close call.”

Teddy Kennedy’s Presidential hopes were ruined, however, by what happened that weekend on Chappaquiddick. A toxic and unsavory chapter through much of the 1970s, it forced him to sideline a White House run until his best window of opportunity had passed. When he did finally seek the Presidency in 1980, he sought to dislodge then-President Jimmy Carter, a fellow Democrat. At the same moment that the country was shifting rightward, Kennedy’s candidacy failed to catch fire, and he would never again have the strategic moment to take that family torch back to the highest office, the place many Kennedy followers felt it brightly and rightly belonged.

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