With the current state of US politics, it is easy to forget that collusion, cover-ups and criminality have been a part of the American political landscape long before Trump. Sure, the current President might be setting a new precedent for bad behaviour and disreputable dealings, but politicians have long been finding themselves entrenched in all manner of scandal from which they have somehow emerged unscathed. In fact, in the case of Ted Kennedy and the events that took place on an island in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts in 1969, his dishonesty about his involvement in the death of a young woman and his actions in the hours immediately after the motor vehicle accident in which she died, somehow made him more appealing to voters. The Kennedy’s, of course, remain one of the most revered political families in America; a family steeped in tragedy. Perhaps the closest thing that country has to a royal family of its own, the Kennedy’s have endured a series of tragic events that have led many to suggest that the family is somehow cursed.
This notion of a family curse is proffered by Ted Kennedy (played by Australian actor Jason Clarke) during a television address in the wake of the accident that killed campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), seemingly to mitigate his own level of culpability. Having embarked on a political career in the shadow of older brothers John and Robert, both of who were assassinated while serving as US President and Senator respectively, Ted was elected to the Senate in 1962 and survived a 1964 plane crash in which the pilot and another passenger were killed. The events of the film take place just a year or so following Robert’s death at a party Ted is hosting in a cabin on the island from which the film takes its name, ostensibly as a reunion of sorts for a group of young women – or Boiler Room girls as they were known due to the windowless work space in which they worked – who had been a part of Robert’s presidential campaign.
Initially presented as a seemingly decent man not entirely comfortable in his own skin, largely because he can never escape the enormous shadow cast by his brothers, Ted’s actions on the night in question leave him morally compromised and at the mercy of a team of fixers summoned by family patriarch Joe (Bruce Dern), whose disdain for his youngest son is evident despite the severe paralysis he suffers as the result of a stroke. Drawn together by their shared grief over the death of Robert, Ted and Mary Jo leave the party for a heart-to-heart talk and are supposedly heading for the ferry to return to the mainland when a wrong turn results in the car plunging into a lake. Ted escapes and, according to his version of events, attempts unsuccessfully to free Mary Jo, before returning to the party to confer with his cousin and confidante Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) before hightailing via ‘borrowed’ row boat back to his hotel room. Somewhat fortuitously for Ted, with the Apollo 11 moon landing imminent at the time of the accident, newspaper headlines were focussed elsewhere, providing some time to get his story straight and implement a strategy of self-preservation that included little demonstrable remorse for the victim and ultimately resulted in a two-year suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident.
Working from a script by first-time feature writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, director John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil) presents the events in the order in which they played out and, as we have no real way of knowing the accuracy of this version, we can only attest to the plausibility of what unfolds on screen and there is nothing here to suggest that what we see is particularly unlikely. Despite strong turns in several productions, such as Zero Dark Thirty and Mudbound, Clarke doesn’t seem to draw the same notices as other Australians in Hollywood, but it’s his effectively understated performance here that anchors this film. Unfortunately though, neither Mara nor Olivia Thirlby – who announced herself as a considerable talent with knockout performances in Juno and The Wackness some ten years ago but has been largely confined to mediocre fare ever since – have much to do. Whilst there is nothing particularly thrilling about what transpires in the 100-minute running time, Chappaquiddick works as a complicated character study that reminds us yet again of the fact that those in positions of power are rarely held accountable for their actions, regardless of the collateral damage they leave in their wake.