“Chappaquiddick” immediately does something I never thought it would do. It aroused in me empathy for its main character. Before the film even gets going, it reminds the viewer of something I’d never spent much time thinking about: Ted Kennedy lost four of his siblings when he and they were relatively young. Joseph Kennedy Jr died a hero’s death in WW II when Ted was just a child; Kathleen died four years later in a plane crash. JFK was shot to death in 1963, and Robert was shot to death in 1968, less than a year before the Chappaquiddick incident.
I know what it is to lose young siblings when one is young oneself. It’s a pain that receives too little attention. Everyone goes on and on about how hard it is for the parents to lose a child. The brother or sister stands there, ignored, and stumbling through something that the world tells you is not supposed to hurt so much. After my most recent sibling died, I made bad decisions I now regret. This reflection enters into my assessment of Ted Kennedy’s behavior at Chappaquiddick.
The film reminds us, too, that Chappaquiddick was simultaneous with the moon landing. America’s attention was on this fruition of JFK’s call to go to the moon. In the film, Ted is shown as the runt of the litter, not his father’s favorite, and constantly compared, in an unfavorable way, to Jack. The lowest point of his life coincides with a celebration of how inspirational and visionary his brother was. Ted squirms onscreen, and the viewer squirms with him.
“Chappaquiddick” is set in 1969, and the sets, cars, and hairdos are authentic, but the viewer doesn’t get to bask in retro fun as one can in other films. The opening of the film, leading up to the accident, is very grim and sad. The film accepts one theory, that Mary Jo Kopechne did not drown, but rather asphyxiated in an air pocket in the car. The film shows this, and it’s hard to watch.
After the accident, Ted reports to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, and is confronted with a Camelot brain trust, including Robert McNamara and Ted Sorensen, there to help finesse him out of the hell he has gotten himself into. Their Machiavellian machinations and Ted’s fumbling are inadvertently funny.
The onscreen version of events is largely the one told by Joe Gargan, a disaffected Kennedy cousin. The viewer is at times utterly baffled by Kennedy’s behavior. It never even attempts to answer the key question, why did Kennedy not report the accident sooner? His hesitation can’t be explained away as selfish calculation, because Kennedy’s delay damaged him irreparably.
At times the film invites the viewer to feel for Kennedy. Father Joseph, incapacitated by a stroke, unforgettably played by Bruce Dern, is demanding and unloving. He manages, even from his wheelchair, to push Ted around. Ted struggles to do the right thing.
The film could have been deeper had it been more universal. Ted Kennedy is not the only person who has done a very bad thing. We have all done very bad things. The question becomes, how does one continue living after doing a very bad thing? Must a human life be thrown away after a person does a bad thing? Or is there any chance for redemption? The film hints at that theme, but does not develop it. It’s more of a docudrama than a sweeping tragedy.
The second question that is hinted at, but not fully explored by the film. People who want to serve the public must be, to some extent, showmen. They must make rabbits spring from empty hats. One can have all the best ideas in the world, but without charisma, those ideas can never reach fruition.
Ted Kennedy put 47 years into the Senate, making him the fourth-longest continuously serving senator. He had plenty of money. He could have spent his life on beaches and golf courses. Instead he spent it trying to better the lives of those less fortunate than he, through legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act and children’s health insurance. It takes work to pass as much legislation as Kennedy passed. No one can doubt his commitment to service.
So, yes, call his behavior after the accident inexplicable and selfish. But recognize that part of what he and his team were doing was what the public needs in its leaders. We the people want show business, and that Camelot brain trust gave it to us.
Seeking insight into Kennedy’s character, I listened, again, to his eulogy for his brother, Bobby. In this eulogy, Kennedy is stoic. He references idealism, public service, and the Ancient Greeks.
Some obsess on Chappaquiddick. They insist that this event forever damns Ted Kennedy. They refuse to hear of his life of service. It’s no surprise that those who take this position are hostile to Kennedy’s Democratic politics. It’s cheap to exploit Mary Jo Kopechne’s death to agitate against health insurance for poor children and accessibility for handicapped people.