Chappaquiddick: A Review

From a distance, Kennedy has long seemed like a man playing a role: the role his staff expected him to play, the role his public expected him to play, the role his brothers and their retainers expected him to play, the role his father expected him to play. “Ted Kennedy, Liberal Icon” was performance art which dragged on for decades. One of his more vigorous opponents over the years, Raymond Shamie, pointed out that his signature issue was ‘national health insurance’, but that his proposal had never got out of subcommittee, and he was chairman of the subcommittee. Maybe all along what he really cared about was making waitress sandwiches.

Art Deco, commenter, The American Catholic, April 7, 2018



My son and I saw the movie Chappaquiddick on Saturday.  It is a superb evocation of time and place and a damning indictment of the cowardice of Ted Kennedy that led to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.  My review is below the fold, and the usual caveat as to spoilers is in full force.

Australian actor Jason Clark is stunning as Ted Kennedy.  He captures the Boston accent perfectly, and believing that you are looking at Ted Kennedy in the film requires no suspension of disbelief.  Kennedy is portrayed as a child in a man’s body.  At one point as his advisors are discussing what to do about the accident and Kennedy not reporting it, he is shown flying a kite over the ocean.  Ed Helms is superb as Joe Gargan, who is the voice of conscience for Kennedy, a voice he does not heed.  Joe Gargan died in December of last year, shortly before the release of the film.  A cousin of Ted Kennedy, he was an attorney and Kennedy fixer.  In 1988 he broke his silence about Chappaquiddick and told the behind the scenes story to the author of Senatorial Privilege.

Kennedy is shown as a completely empty man, a vehicle for the ambitions of his father, and perpetually in the shadow of his three dead brothers.  The film juxtaposes scenes of Mary Jo Kopechne gasping for air in an air pocket in the car as Kennedy fails to summon the help that could so easily have saved her.  The diver who got her body out the next day states that he could have gotten her out of the automobile in 25 minutes if help had been summoned.

Kennedy’s focus is continually on avoiding the consequences of his action with almost no concern for the fact that his failure to summon help almost certainly killed Mary Jo Kopechne.  The actress Andria Blackman as Joan Kennedy, the wife of Ted, only has one line in the film, but it is a killer, a pungent three word instruction for Kennedy after he thanks her for accompanying him to the Kopechne funeral.

Bruce Dern portrays Joe Kennedy, incapacitated due to a stroke, face contorted and barely able to speak.  When Ted calls him seeking advice, he responds with one word: “Alibi”.

Chappaquiddick of course occurred during the Apollo 11 manned landing on the moon, and the film juxtaposes this fulfillment of the pledge made by JFK with his brother’s scandal.

Eventually Kennedy decides to resign, asking Gargan to write up a resignation speech.  Gargan does so, and is shocked when Kennedy decides to give the Ted Sorensen speech, Sorensen of course being the ghost writer for Profiles in Courage, JFK’s Pulitzer prize winning look at Senatorial courage, instead, a masterpiece in how to pretend to take responsibility while avoiding any and all consequences:


In later years Kennedy was known to make jokes about Chappaquiddick.  I trust in the next world he does not find the jokes quite so humorous.  In this world I hope that this film is a coda to his career that will cause him to be remembered as a chestless man whose cowardice led to the death of a young woman, and who cared far more for a political career, that he probably did not really want, than he did for making even a minimal effort to attempt to save her.  The people of Massachusetts reelected him seven times to the Senate after Chappaquiddick, but no amount of political success can relieve Kennedy from an iota of the infamy that he richly earned that night almost 49 years ago.

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  1. Actually speaks at least as much about the voters of Massachusetts as it does about Ted Kennedy. Sort of makes one wonder why all the fuss about President Trump and his habits.

  2. Let’s be ethnic and say that the name “Kennedy,” no matter to whom it is attached, can garner at least 70% of the votes in Boston and surrounding areas,

  3. It was interesting to hear the reference to the “greatness” of Jack and Bobby while we’re in the middle of #metoo time. I went home from the movie and borrowed a copy of Mimi Alford’s book, Once Upon a Secret, about one of many, many affairs that Jack had, this one with a 19 year old intern. That’s a sad legacy that Joe left to his sons.

  4. The Kennedys, at least Joe Kennedy, Senior, JFK, RFK and Ted, viewed adultery as a competitive sport. As one Boston Brahman once said, “We didn’t look down on the Kennedys because they were Catholic, we looked down on them because they were slime.

  5. A dear friend of mine had some dealings with Robert Kennedy in 1964 which left him thoroughly disgusted. He was pounding the pavement for Eugene McCarthy four years later. That having been said, I’ve never seen it contended that sexual transgression was one of RFK’s vices. Father and brothers, yes, of course. About 1/4 to 1/3 of the grandchildren have behaved in ways that made the papers, which may be close to the level of yuck you see in ordinary families; only 3 of them seem particularly capable (and one of those three is a sketchy character).

  6. Actually speaks at least as much about the voters of Massachusetts as it does about Ted Kennedy.

    You get outside the Boston media market and you haven’t since 1968 been able to move this inventory. See Kathleen Townsend’s misbegotten career in Maryland politics. And she didn’t have any dirt on her; it’s a working majority of her brothers (and one sister) who have been sources of scandal.

  7. I’d be more impressed if it didn’t include the Marilyn Monroe meme. A critic of the Marilyn Monroe meme (re his brother) concluded that MM and John Kennedy could be verified to have met perhaps 3x and that there is just a single surviving photograph with both MM and RFK in the frame.

  8. about one of many, many affairs that Jack had,

    Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt had ‘affairs’. The word gives JFK’s activity too much dignity. He once told the Prime Minister of Britain, “If I don’t get a strange piece of ass each day, I get a headache”. Mr. MacMillan was asked his assessment of the new administration: “Rather like the Borgia brothers have taken over a respectable north Italian town”.

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