Chappaquiddick

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Chappaquiddick

Runtime 101 minutes
PG-13

The only time I saw Ted Kennedy in person was when he gave a speech at UVA my last year in law school, while recovering from a plane crash that broke his back. To give credit where credit is due, he was an outstanding speaker.

This film is the mostly all-warts story of how Kennedy (Jason Clarke) was responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara, in a very good performance) in 1969 by driving a car off of the Dike Bridge into tide-swept but shallow Poucha Pond. Although the movie does not specifically indicate that he was drunk, it implies as much. Landing upside down in very shallow water, Kennedy escaped but Mary Jo remained trapped in the car where she died. The recreation of the event is exceptionally well done.

This excellent film seems painstakingly unbiased, painting Kennedy as an egotistical, arrogant, selfish, blackguard who cared only for himself and his family name. It also shows Kennedy stalwarts like JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) and JFK and LBJ Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) to be equally vile perverters of the truth in doing anything to help Teddy escape the blame that was justly his for driving off the bridge and running away without reporting it or lifting a finger to help Mary Jo. Of course buddies Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) are shown as also complicit since they both could also have reported it in time, and didn’t.

One of the characters in the movie, John Farrar (Joe Chase), the captain of the Edgartown Fire Rescue unit and the diver who recovered Kopechne’s body, says in the movie that had he been called immediately he could’ve saved her in 20 minutes. Reality confirms this. At the inquest, the real Farrar testified, “It looked as if she were holding herself up to get a last breath of air. It was a consciously assumed position….She didn’t drown. She died of suffocation in her own air void. It took her at least three or four hours to die. I could have had her out of that car 25 minutes after I got the call. But he (Ted Kennedy) didn’t call.”

No, Kennedy ran away without informing the police, concerned only about his reputation with nary a thought of Mary Jo. It was more than nine hours before the car was discovered and Mary Jo had long since expired from lack of oxygen.

The result of Kennedy’s cowardice and the manipulations of the justice system and the media by the powerful Kennedy team, of course, was that Ted remained in the Senate.

According to three-time Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, had this occurred in Los Angeles, “…there are several California felonies that could have been filed under the circumstances: Hit and Run with Injury/Death, Gross Vehicular Manslaughter, DUI causing Injury or Death, Alcohol Related Gross Vehicular Manslaughter (15 years to life under California law), and probably a few others.”

Although clearly implied, left out is the failure to explain the details of the obvious corruption and manipulations of justice that resulted in Teddy being allowed to get off virtually scot-free by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor of leaving the scene of an accident instead of being indicted for his serious crimes which were too blatant to ignore without behind the scenes venality.

It also shows Mary Jo’s parents kissing up to Kennedy when he appeared at the funeral, which seems to validate the actions taken to excuse Teddy. I doubt the veracity of this scene especially in light of a 1989 UPI interview with Mary Jo’s parents in which the Kopechnes said they got little emotional support from Kennedy and sat in frustrated silence as Mary Jo’s name “was dragged through the mud;” Mr. Kopechne adding that “the only satisfaction he and his wife have is that ‘Mary Jo’s death kept the senator from becoming president’.”

The film is well directed with fine pace by John Curran from a script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. The acting is good although Clarke’s accent doesn’t come close to the distinctive Kennedy brogue. Some of the best scenes involve the appearances of Bruce Dern in an awards-quality performance as the stroke-disabled Joe Kennedy.

Mysteriously, Kennedy’s mother, Rose, is nowhere to be seen.

As an interesting aside, neither of the scriptwriters was aware of the Chappaquiddick tragedy until they heard it mentioned on the Bill Maher TV show in 2008. This film, that seems extraordinarily accurate, will provide a good service to educate youngsters like them about the true despicable character of the man the Democrats and the media glorify as “The Lion of the Senate,” as well as the tawdry characters of the others in the Kennedy clan who rushed to Ted’s defense and have been called “The best and the brightest.”

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