Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Little did a shell-shocked Ted Kennedy know that when he left Mary Jo Kopechne in his car to drown after it careened off a bridge, he’d be setting off one of the biggest political scandals of all time. Though he enacted many progressive changes during his decades-long political career following the tragedy, the event known as “Chappaquiddick” would loom like a specter over all his accomplishments. Director John Curran’s CHAPPAQUIDDICK adds more details with its re-enactment, posing some very provocative questions to the audience. However, the lack of definitive answers may serve to frustrate some.
It’s 1969 – only one year since Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and six years since John F. Kennedy’s assassination – when we first meet Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke). He’s already seen his fair share of tragedy and chaos. Still reeling from grief, feeling the weight of the world thanks to the family legacy, and at a career crossroads, Ted’s looking for a weekend getaway with some of his young staffers – including young Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). But as he’s taking her home one evening, his car careens off a bridge, trapping Mary Jo inside. Ted, however, narrowly escapes. What ensues is one of the most infamous cover-ups in our country’s history, but also a psychological drama about personal and ethical responsibilities.
This isn’t really a “biopic.” Instead, it spotlights one incredibly intense, stressful week in the life of the now-revered Senator. Curran, along with screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, really puts audiences into Kennedy’s psychological state at the time. The feeling of guilt, insecurity and uncertainty feels tangible, permeating the picture, giving it an uneasy undercurrent. Not only is that thanks in part to a brilliant, transformative and understated performance by Clarke, but also the material afforded him. No matter where your personal political leanings, the audience will empathize with this flawed anti-hero. While we never root for him to “get away with” his crimes, we root for him to overcome his inner demons.
The filmmakers also do a tremendous job building out Kennedy’s inner circle with supportive figures like his attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), who’s like a cross between Jiminy Cricket and “Tom Hagen” in THE GODFATHER. While the tragedy immediately affected Ted, Joe was probably the most tragic person in this affair, bearing the brunt of the fallout. There’s also an unexpected lightness to the scenes set in the makeshift war room at the Kennedy compound. Curran’s assembled troupe of actors – like Clancy Brown and Taylor Nichols – really shine in the absurdist DR. STRANGELOVE-ian humor within these damage-control sequences. Even Bruce Dern is unrecognizable in his turn as the family’s patriarch, Joe Kennedy.
Effusive praise aside, the one pervasive problem that the picture never is able to skirt is that the real victim, Mary Jo, still manages to get lost in the shuffle. She’s relegated to the cinematic trope of “the woman in the refrigerator” (here, the woman in the Oldsmobile Delmont 88), existing solely to inspire the male protagonist’s journey. It’s a little forgivable as this is history, and the filmmakers hearten her backstory a smidge, positing that she’s Ted’s true north. But it’s just not enough – and given all the creative liberties they take with Ted, the same should be extended to Mary Jo. Plus, the character of Rachel Schiff (Olivia Thirlby), who blindly supports Ted with two pep talks, serves as further proof that women here are utilized to aid the male ego.
You may think you know the whole story, but Curran’s feature showcases a whole other side to the facts, whilst simultaneously crafting a staggeringly timely, resonant cautionary tale for today.
CHAPPAQUIDDICK is now playing.