Kudos to the electrifying Australian actor Jason Clarke (Mudbound, Zero Dark Thirty) for playing Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy with a forceful urgency that avoids the trap of saint-or-sinner labels – an easy go-to when you're portraying a member of America's foremost political dynasty. Both he and Chappaquidick hit on something far more complex: the broken moral compass of a driven, passionately committed politician. Kennedy, known as the "lion of the Senate," left a a proud legacy of activism during nearly five decades in office. But the dark cloud of the Chappaquidick scandal of half a century ago haunted Kennedy until his death at 77 in 2009. And this film, an immersive if sometimes frustrating blend of fact and speculation, catches the congressman in his hour of greatest shame while facing a career-defining crisis of conscience.
Director John Curran carefully sets the scene. It's July 18, 1969, the date of the Apollo moon landing. Ted, then 37, is on Martha's Vineyard in the Kennedy home state of Massachusetts. Six "boiler-room girls" – so named because of the confined room in DC where they all worked on the late Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign – are having a few reunion drinks at a beach cottage. When staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) wants to leave, the senator offers to drive her. (The floated idea that the two were having a thing is barely hinted at in the script by first-timers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan.) Kennedy, who's been drinking, detours to duck a cop; he doesn't want to be caught in a DUI. Then, minutes later, his car goes off the bridge at Chappaquiddick and plunges into the water. He emerges, and staggers back to the cottage. No call for help. No attempt to rescue Mary Jo, who we later learn was alive for hours.
You have to creidt Mara for imbuing her few scenes with a warmth and vibrancy that rescues Mary Jo from the footnotes of history, allowing her to emerge as both a victim of tragedy and a human being whose life was senselessly lost. You will keep seeing her face as the events of the night unfold. Before going to bed to sleep off his bender, Ted confers with his friend and lawyer Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), saying "I'm not going to be President." He and Massachusetts Attorney General Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) urge the politician to report the incident. His father, the tyrannical Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern), pushes through the paralyzing effects of a stroke to croak out one word: "Alibi."
That leads the Kennedy damage control team, guided by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) and Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols), to spring into action. These men manipulate the news media and pressure local authorities to cover up the nastier details and sell the accident theory. Ted, caught in a vise between truth and what another President will one day call "fake news," only lets himself be led so far. He gives contradictory statements to the press and stupidly wears a neck brace to Mary Jo's funeral to drum up sympathy. The fact that he keeps craning his neck to look around exposes the bogus nature of his injury. This member of the American elite is ultimately charged with leaving the scene of an accident and given a suspended sentence instead of doing jail time for criminal negligence. He's off the hook.
Or is he? Thanks to the deep grain of ferocity and consuming frailty that Clarke builds into his performance we get inside Ted's head. And what we see there is a man who knows he'll never follow in his brother's executive footsteps, who knows he'll never get out from under the long shadow cast by his other siblings, who knows he'll always be squirming inside his own skin. The film is corrosive in its take on the injustice that allowed Ted to live and prosper in a protective bubble of privilege. Clarke makes it clear that the man himself most likely felt the same way. Was the senator's long fight for the disenfranchised a way of seeking an elusive redemption? Did he ever find it? The resonant power of Chappaquiddick is how it leaves you contemplating those questions long after you leave the theater.