Review: Chappaquiddick

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Originally reviewed during TIFF 2017

PLOT: The true story of the infamous “Chappaquiddick incident”, where Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) accidently drove off a bridge, resulting in the death of former RFK campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).

REVIEW: To anyone who thinks Hollywood only ever makes movies about bad Republicans, have I got a movie for you! Not only does director John Curran’s movie, CHAPPAQUIDDICK, badly knock a figure who’s still somewhat beloved in the Democratic party (the late Ted Kennedy), but it also turns a critical eye towards the Kennedy mystique, showing how the family closed ranks around one of their own at a moment that could – and arguably should – have cost him not only his career, but his freedom.

The big controversy around CHAPPAQUIDDICK, of course, was never about whether Kennedy was cheating with Kopechne (something the film never states one way or another), or whether he was drunk while driving, but the fact that after his car went off the bridge, he abandoned the scene of the accident, even after returning with his cousin (played by Ed Helms) and lawyer (Jim Gaffigan) sometime later. He always said Kopechne couldn’t have been saved, but many believe she suffocated rather than drowned, and that had he called for help, she would have lived.

It’s this theory that CHAPPAQUIDDICK adheres to, with us seeing an anguished Kopechne, played by Kate Mara in a brief but powerful turn, suffocate all alone while trapped in the flipped over car. Kennedy, initially portrayed as possessing such poise that a term in the White House was all but guaranteed, is a pathetic lout on-screen, obsessed only with his career, and easily manipulated into participating in a cover-up.

Clarke’s performance is one of his strongest. If not exactly conveying sympathy for Kennedy, we at least get how terribly weak he was. The parts where he interacts with his stroke-ridden but still commanding father Joe (Bruce Dern – in a great cameo) are especially insightful into his mindset. JFK was the charismatic one, RFK the smart one, while Ted is…the weak “other” one.

Ed Helms, as his cousin Joe Gargan, is the film’s conscience, even if his character, and Ted’s lawyer (very well played by Gaffigan), are guilty by extension, as they foolishly trusted him to call the authorities. Like the others though, they’re caught up in the Kennedy mystique, something which arguably cost Kopechne her life.

One of the splashier deals at TIFF, with it being picked up by Entertainment Studios for a theatrical release, it’s a compelling political tale. While maybe too dry to ever connect in a big way, Curran (TRACKS) daringly takes on a subject no one would have ever gone near when the Kennedy’s still wielded influence. It’s the kind of movie that will enrage you, for how a golden boy like Ted never had to pay for his mistakes, while Kopechne was chalked up as mere collateral damage.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.