One truth about American politics: Partisans tend not to face the full mendacity of their side’s worst until there are no more elections left for those worst to win. The George W. Bush fans in my feeds and family stuck with their lug right until the runup to the 2008 contest, and the Donald Trumpers I know won’t admit something’s hinky with Vladimir Putin until the president’s retired. The Democrats, too, are increasingly comfortable talking about Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern as an abuse of power. And at long last, 49 years after the drunk-driving accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne, the country seems primed to look Edward Kennedy dead in the eyes. A character notes, late in John Curran’s tense, tragic Chappaquiddick, that history will be the true judge of the fourth of Joe Kennedy’s boys. Curran’s film, often enthralling and upsetting, represents a welcome break in the hagiographic treatment the longtime “lion of the Senate” enjoyed in the years leading up to his 2009 death.
Curran, working from a screenplay by Andrew Logan, finds some pathos in Kennedy’s failings: his dynastic worries, expressed to Kopechne (Kate Mara), as Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drives her around the twisting roads of Chappaquiddick Island in July 1969; his terror after he careens over a one-lane bridge and into a pond, where the car sinks upside down to the bottom; his paralysis after he escapes the car and swims to the surface but can’t bring himself to go back and rescue her or to telephone for help; his abortive flashes of conscience when the film becomes, about halfway through, a dark comedy about a cover-up. “We tell the truth,” he declares with puffed-up Camelot conviction to the family and its fixers, “or at least our version of it.”
The film’s drama becomes not whether Kennedy will ever do the right thing, whether he’ll admit to the police and the public and Kopechne’s family the truth of just what she was doing in the car of a married senator and just why he failed even to try to save her life. Instead, the drama is whether we today, sifting the miserable details, can find any reason not to damn him. Ancillary to that is the disappointment the film may stir in you that so many Democrats, in Massachusetts and around the country, did find reason not to — for decades. Devotees of the quasi-royal Kennedy clan might carp that Chappaquiddick too definitively casts the senator as a monster. After all, his first spoken words after he escapes the crash, as Kopechne struggles to free herself from a car slowly flooding with water, are, “I’m never going to be president.” But the facts of the subsequent cover-up justify a motivation so baldly stated. The film suggests, sometimes too stridently, that Kennedy, like us, had been sold the myth of his family’s importance — that his political career actually must, in the final calculus, matter more than the young woman’s life.
Chappaquiddick’s psychology can be reductive, but so can real life’s or Greek tragedy’s. A bracing, unfashionably leisurely opening credits sequence establishes the character of Kennedy ’69 — the bronze-medal brother suddenly, after two assassinations, straining to be the golden boy — as well as the geography of the island and mood of dispirited perseverance. Clarke’s performance suggests an uncertain husk of a man, one desperate to haul himself into greatness but incapable of taking significant action without instruction. At the film’s opening, Kennedy and his cousin Joseph Gargan (a strong Ed Helms) have come to Martha’s Vineyard for an annual sailing race and then a reunion party with the Boiler Room Girls, a group of young women, mostly secretaries, who had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign. The rhythms are clipped, uneasy; when Kennedy chats up Kopechne on the beach, trying to talk her into coming to work for him, we see him try to muscle up more charm than is natural to him. Kopechne, for her part, looks as if she’s being offered second prize in a contest she didn’t really want to enter. (Mara has relatively little screen time, though she haunts the film; for a version of this story that centers on the suffering of the victim rather than the machinations of the senator, try Joyce Carol Oates’ excellent, harrowing 1993 novel Black Water.)
Curran and his director of photography, Maryse Alberti, summon up a memorably strained summer evening. The camera glides past the beach cabin in which the party is petering along, each window passing like a panel in a comic strip we’re reading. (The period detail is impeccable.) Soon, as the senator drives Kopechne into the night, the world is all headlights and moonlight right up until the crash, when those headlights beam eerily beneath the shallow water. Then comes an extended sequence of the senator, dazed but coldly calculating, consulting with cronies, calling his father and generally refusing to do the one thing any person worth a damn would: Report the crash and call for help. He dresses, slowly, in his hotel room, late in the evening, as Chappaquiddick cuts to Kopechne fighting to keep her head above the rising water. Twice, in the film, when truly forced to consider what he has done, Kennedy breaks down, overwhelmed with grief and what might be disgust. And both times a cruel pragmatism takes over — a protect-the-family ethos that the filmmakers pin on his father, Joe Kennedy, played by a rasping, sepulchral Bruce Dern.
The tone shifts as the film goes on — as time and Joe’s army of fast-talking fixers move Kennedy further away from the truth of what he did. (Masterminding Kennedy’s legal and PR strategy, the fixers finish each other’s sentences, sometimes speak in unison and lift the film toward cynical patter comedy. If he watches Chappaquiddick, Trump will ask, “Why aren’t my guys this good?”)
By the end, even Kennedy is starting to believe the spin. We see flashes of the memories he wishes he had, of him swimming to the passenger door and fighting to open it. The implication is that, as he insisted in public that he had endeavored to save her, he could believe it himself. For a few minutes, late in the film, we seem to be expected to believe that the man, after leaving her to die, still has soul enough to worry over. Kennedy delivers an impassioned speech, to pitiless Joe, about how all the son ever wanted was to impress the father. It’s a familiar scene, pure Oscar-night stuff, but I have a hard time imagining viewers weeping for Teddy. The dude left her to die — who cares if his father doesn’t love him? The film wraps, though, with his pungently sour victory, with a reminder of how easy it was to convince the voters of Massachusetts to stick with their boy. It’s the scariest thing in the movie.