Political scandals are nothing new, or quite surprising, in today’s world. And as possible, even likely, as it is that Chappaquiddick was made without the specifics of today’s world in mind, its release at this moment in time colors the film in a deeply unsettling way.
The film picks up with Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), brother to the assassinated John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, at a turning point in his life. After a party and some drinks, he takes a drive with Mary Jo Kopechne — a drive that ends with the car flipped off of a bridge into the water off Chappaquiddick island, and Mary Jo dead by drowning.
But Chappaquiddick doesn’t choose to focus on the event itself for too long. A majority of the story revolves around the aftermath, around Ted Kennedy’s attempts to turn himself from a possible criminal into another victim of the event. And that is where the film reaches into the filth of politics.
Rather early on, the film takes a side. Ted, on his way back to mainland, is advised by his cousin Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms) to immediately notify the police the night of the accident, and director John Curran chooses to crosscut between Ted ignoring Gargan’s advice and Mary Jo screaming for help, clinging onto the sliver of air left in the car as it sinks. The sequence is incredibly uncomfortable and infuriating to watch, but that’s purposeful and effective to the story the film tells.
Much of the visual look of Chappaquiddick, in regard to the costume design and production design, is rather standard, and risks rendering the film dull. But Curran’s composition of the film continues to work to reveal political filth. As Ted and the powerhouse publicity/legal team put together by his father plan their “version of the truth,” Curran chooses to literally manifest and show the type of story that they plan to feed to the American people, granting the film an almost dry-yet-unnerving humor in the immorality of it all. At a point, the film’s use of visual juxtaposition becomes almost cruel in its effectiveness, such as when the edit reveals that the manipulation is working on, of all people, Mary Jo’s parents.
Chappaquiddick does present us with some sense of identification in the form of Gargan. While the film makes clear in its editing that Gargan is, at the end of the day, complicit, the character creates constant tension at nearly every development. Ed Helms is particularly magnificent, the role playing into the typical good-guy tone that Helms is so good at, while also offering some quiet (and loud) dramatic moments that we don’t see much of from him.
But the film undoubtedly rests on the shoulders of Jason Clarke, and Clarke turns in one of his finest performances. He takes a character so clearly positioned as an anti-hero and doesn’t necessarily make him sympathetic, but makes him intriguing, accentuating the despicable faults of Ted Kennedy with force. Clarke hits on the pressure that the character feels with that last name and, in turn, evokes the whiplash infantilism, masked in the facade of the mysticism of “Kennedy,” that that pressure has resulted in.
And that is precisely why the film succeeds. It doesn’t deny the mysticism of the Kennedy family. It just simply understands that that mysticism can turn very, very ugly.
Featured image via Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures.