Chappaquiddick is a movie that is likely to piss off a lot of people. Some will see it as unfair to Teddy Kennedy. Others will see it as too kind to Teddy Kennedy. Still others will find the confusion and ambiguity proposed by John Curran’s form as distracting at best and manipulative at worst. These opinions are, to one degree or another, authentic and fair because Chappaquiddick is a really weird movie.
It takes the form of every tragic biopic you’ve ever seen – in its score, manipulative subjective realism, dramatic conversations and melodrama. However, the content contains no moral center, no necessary ethical guide to interpretation, and performances that contradict the form.
This could be a sign of sloppy filmmaking, or it could be a sign of the kind of film that our times demand. In a world where Donald Trump is the President of the United States, white nationalists can roam the streets under the guise of liberalism and free speech, and the term “fake news” is used by left and right to mean totally different things, I think a film like Chappaquiddick is essential because it doesn’t give you easy answers. It won’t let you take the stand of the well meaning liberal who sees both sides of an issue as equally valid; where the ‘marketplace of ideas’ will see truth out, letting you stand back not taking a side. Rather, it forces you to take a stand based only on your values and the limited information you are given. Either you hold fast to moral values of ethics and integrity, or you embrace a pragmatic view of the world where consequences are more important than actions. There is no middle ground in Chappaquiddick.
Seeing this film at TIFF was particularly surreal because of the relative proximity to the late Rob Ford, the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto from 2010-2014. Because six long years before Trump was elected, there were Torontonians making the same decision that Americans did when voting for Donald Trump – the decision to privilege the public over the private, the decision to privilege policies promised (not necessarily delivered) over personal ethical considerations.
Chappaquiddick forces these same uncomfortable questions, but this time for democrats and fans of the Kennedys. When Jason Clarke’s Ted Kennedy first returns to his friends mere hours after drunkenly crashing his car into a lake, there should be no ethical confusion over his explanation of what is wrong. Rather than saying, “Mary Jo is dead,” or, “there’s been a terrible accident,” he says, “I’m not gonna’ be President.”
There should also be no ethical confusion about Kennedy’s decisions in the days and weeks to come. He should have reported the crash immediately because it’s possible that the girl’s life could have been saved. He should have told the whole truth rather than trying to construct a story that would protect his image. He should have resigned his Senate seat because he continuously lied to the authorities and his constituents.
But we know where this story ends. Ted Kennedy goes on to be one of the most impactful legislators in American history, arguably changing the shape of the American government more than either of his brothers did. But this film doesn’t privilege that information as a justification, only a possible one.
Filling out the cast are characters presenting different sides of this ethical quandary. Kate Mara is excellent as Mary Jo Kopechne, showing the impact that the death of RFK had on an idealistic generation. Ed Helms is Joe Gargan, Kennedy’s cousin, who tries to promote Ted’s better instincts in vain. Another friend of Kennedy’s is played by Jim Gaffigan, skeptically playing along with the more and more convoluted ploy to save Ted’s career. And in a standout role with fewer than 10 lines is Bruce Dern as Joseph Kennedy Sr., as the overbearing father that provoked Ted against his own integrity.
While Helms deserves awards consideration for this role, I doubt it will make much of an impact come awards season. The film is too odd for Academy voters, too forceful in its ambiguity. But given John Curran’s tendency to make controversial dramas, Chappaquiddick is another chapter in an accomplished filmography and a must-see come time for its streaming release.