When Senator Ted Kennedy died in 2009 after serving in the Senate for almost half a century, obituarized memorialized him as “the Lion of the Senate,” praising his leadership among Senate Democrats and his lifetime support of universal healthcare and immigration reform. The new movie Chappaquiddick looks back at a decidedly less celebrated aspect of Kennedy’s career: that time he accidentally killed a woman and then tried to cover it up.
Chappaquiddick opens by showing that woman, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), sunbathing in a cleavage-y swimsuit on the beach with a friend and fellow former Bobby Kennedy campaigner. The pair are discussing Mary Jo's reentry into politics: After taking a break from politics after Bobby Kennedy’s death, Mary Jo recently re-started her political career by working on a New Jersey mayoral race. Now, Ted Kennedy has talked with Mary Jo about working in politics on a higher level, and she’s considering it. In the midst of this conversation, Ted himself (Jason Clarke) walks up — and that’s the end of any hint of Mary Jo’s interiority.
We next see Mary Jo with other “Boiler Room Girls” — a group of young women who worked on the Bobby Kennedy campaign — at a party with Ted, his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), and other Kennedy insiders. A gregarious and apparently drunk Ted takes Mary Jo for a drive — the filmmakers leave room for viewers to interpret this drive as the prelude to either a hookup or a conversation about Mary Jo’s career goals. After seeing the police approach their parked car, Ted speeds away...and drives straight off a narrow wooden bridge into a body of water. After Ted escapes the submerged car and swims to the beach, he lies back on the sand and reflects on the loss of his political career. Mary Jo is still trapped inside the car, panicking as it slowly fills up with water.
Director John Curran, following a script written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, follows Ted as he goes to increasingly shady means to try to, at first, escape any connection with Mary Jo’s death, and then reduce the damage to his political career. The filmmakers portray Ted, his father Joe (Bruce Dern), and the rest of the Kennedys and their accomplices as single-mindedly focused on politics to the point of callousness — none of them give much of a thought to Mary Jo’s death beyond what it means for Ted's political career. But in doing so, the filmmakers also appear to have not given any more thought to Mary Jo’s death — or life — than the Kennedys did.
With Kate Mara cast in the role and featured prominently in the trailer and marketing, I was expecting Mary Jo to appear in more than a few scenes. Yes, her character dies, but how about flashbacks to her time working for Bobby Kennedy, or showing her decision to re-enter politics? Kopechne's Wikipieda page tells far us more about her than this movie even hints at: She was involved with the Civil Rights movement, she was a talented speechwriter, she loved softball. At the end of the movie, white text on a black screen gravely informs us that after failing to get past the primaries in 1980, Ted Kennedy never did run for president, framing the tragedy of the movie as the loss of Kennedy's presidential aspirations and not, y'know, the woman he killed. Chappaquiddick succeeds in showing the dark side of the political machinery behind the Kennedys, but there has to be a way to do that and give more value to Mary Jo’s life than the Kennedys did.
top photo: Chappaquiddick
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