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Few people of my generation recognize the word “Chappaquiddick,” or can identify the significant meaning behind it. At 23 years old, I have found myself enamored by the time period of 1968 to 1975 because of the significant American scandals and moments that happened, ones that have impacted America as we know it. The Pentagon Papers and the subsequent Watergate scandal brought on some of the most impressive journalism in our culture. Yet, none of it has the stigma and sadness around it that Chappaquiddick does.
“Chappaquiddick” took place on July 18, 1969. It involved then U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and a coveted campaign strategist, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. Kopechne was deeply involved in Robert Kennedy’s political legacy and the youngest Kennedy brother is pictured as desperately trying to swing her onto his team for a possible presidential run. Kopechne and Kennedy were in a car after a night of partying with campaign staffers and friends when Kennedy drove the car over the side of the bridge leading onto Chappaquiddick island, flipping the car into the water. Kennedy was able to surface almost instantly and did not report the accident until the next morning. Kopechne survived for up to four hours in an air bubble inside the car before dying. She was found the next morning by local police after two fishermen called the floating car in, minutes before Kennedy called the police himself. Kennedy waited more than nine hours before reporting the accident.
The movie was headlined by a team of talented actors and actresses; Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”) stars as the unsure Kennedy; Kate Mara (“House of Cards”) shines as the doomed Kopechne; Ed Helms (“The Hangover”) is a superior Joey Gargan, a Kennedy cousin and trusted confidant; and Jim Gaffigan (“Fargo”) stars as Paul Markham, another close confidant and the former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts.
In my opinion, this movie was very slanted against Kennedy. If you are of the opinion that Kennedy is a horrible man and are out for something that vindicates Kopechne, this will satisfy you. Clarke does a wonderful job of making you absolutely hate Kennedy’s guts–he lies about the most mundane things (once he admitted to actually driving the car, he insisted he swam to shore instead of using a small row boat he, Markham and Gargan found.) His sad puppy demeanor is enough to make you feel absolutely giddy when Kennedy Sr., portrayed by Bruce Dern, finally slaps him toward the end of the movie in his withered state. Just when you believe Kennedy will do the right thing and come forward, he does not. In my mind, it’s an agenda much like “Making A Murderer” is; while it’s giving you the facts, it’s also leading you to a solution. If you know about Chappaquiddick through your own research before walking into the theater, you might have a different opinion than the movie tries to tell you. You’ll see clips of people who pledge their undying support to Kennedy, even after the incident has blown over and he is sentenced for fleeing the scene of the accident and receives a suspended jail sentence.
Helms’ Gargan is the sole voice of reason in the movie. If you’ve seen movies like “The Hangover” or are a “The Office” fan, you will know him as a funny guy. However, he brings a whole new facet of his talent into this movie as a strong, moral, defeated man. While many of the figures babied the incident throughout the movie (the police do not release the statement until much later than they should have, everyone around Ted is trying to come up with a believable lie to keep him out of prison), Gargan shines as the sole voice of reason and the one truly advocating for the life of Kopechne. As Kennedy and his team are strategizing for the big televised statement, Gargan shines with, “A young woman is dead and we are going to make Ted the martyr?” Another standout line is when Kennedy is planning his use of the infamous neck brace at Kopechne’s funeral, and Gargan wrestles the brace out of Kennedy’s hand and screams, “You are not the victim here.” It’s a shining example of what most people in the movie theater are probably thinking, and it snaps you back into seeing just how crazy the situation has gotten–not in Kopechne’s death, but in the cover-up to keep Kennedy in good standing.
“Chappaquiddick” was, in my opinion, one of the best movies I have seen in the past two years. Mara’s performance as the dying Kopechne in the sinking car was believable and heartbreaking; I cried as she gasped for a few more breaths, knowing no one was going to save her. The movie does a great job at bringing back the truth of the incident–a young woman needlessly suffered and died because the accident wasn’t reported. If Kennedy had called in and just fessed up, the diver who found Kopechne’s dead body “could have had her out in 25 minutes.” Throughout the movie, you are forced to see Kopechne’s parents, friends and understand the impact of every single lie Kennedy told about the incident.
While politics are much more convoluted today than they were in the late 1960s, one lasting, overarching impression stays with you as the credits roll: the truth sets you free.
“Chappaquiddick” is playing at select movie theatres in the Capital District.