Chappaquiddick, a nondescript island in rural Massachusetts, leapt into international notoriety in 1969 when presidential hopeful Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge, killing his woman passenger.
The car had flipped into the water below, trapping 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne inside.
Kennedy somehow escaped from the half-submerged vehicle but after a desultory attempt to to help Mary Jo he walked away.
He had lived his life in the shadow of his high-flying older brothers: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States, assassinated in 1963; and Robert Kennedy, former US Attorney-General, headed for the presidency when he too was assassinated in 1968.
Ted was never good enough for his ambitious father, Joe Kennedy.
But as the only remaining Kennedy son (the eldest brother, Joe Jr., was killed in action in World War Two), Ted was the clan’s last hope for the presidency.
Chappaquiddick put paid to that.
John Curran’s film is a powerful semi-documentary which explores the events leading up to the car crash and the party power-brokers’ efforts to whitewash Ted Kennedy’s actions.
Australian actor Jason Clarke does a fine job as the troubled Ted Kennedy. Not only does he look like him but he captured his Boston accent to perfection.
Working from a script by first-time writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, director Curran does not attempt to minimise Kennedy’s culpability but at the same time makes his complex character almost sympathetic.
Kennedy, then aged 37 and a Massachussetts Senator, does everything wrong after the accident.
His first action after leaving the scene is to ring his cousin and lawyer, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), telling him: “We’ve got a problem.”
He ignores Gargan’s advice to report the accident immediately, and goes home to bed. He does not call the police until the following morning.
The lawyers and fixers who converge on the scene next day are focussed on how to minimise Kennedy’s culpability and keep his political career alive.
Kennedy is conscience-stricken but swings wildly between clinging to hopes of a cover-up and wanting to do the right thing.
When he rings to tell his father about the accident, Joe Kennedy has only one thing to say: “Alibi,” he croaks. He was crippled by a stroke after Robert Kennedy’s death the previous year and can hardly talk.
It is a poignant scene when Ted Kennedy asks for comfort from his wheelchair-bound father (Bruce Dern) and is rewarded with a slap in the face.
Kate Mara is competent as the doomed Mary Jo Kopechnie but has few scenes out of the water.
Chappaquiddick is an object lesson on how attempts to cover up a problem almost invariably make things worse.
The film gives a fascinating glimpse of the machinery of politics, with the candidate under enormous pressure to conform with the party line.
Chappaquiddick opens on Thursday, 10 May, at Cinema Paradiso and Luna On Sx.
Watch the trailer…