Chappaquiddick
Directed by John Curran
Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language and historical smoking
1 hr. 46 min.

The word Chappaquiddick, translated from its original Native New England Algonquian, literally means “Island adjacent to the mainland.” Since the fateful summer of 1969, Chappaquiddick, when printed or spoken, evokes many definitions: tragedy, scandal, cowardice, entitlement.

In July of that year, a tumultuous decade skittered to its end. As one dream (a manned moon landing) was being fulfilled, another, the dream of a Kennedy eventually reclaiming the White House, plunged off a small wooden bridge and died alongside Mary Jo Kopechne. It has taken until now, nine years after the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy, to see a motion picture made of this awful incident, the details of which remain as murky as the very waters where Kopechne’s life ended.

Since its early April release, the relatively small crowds for director John Curran’s Chappaquiddick have led to smaller venues, but there’s no getting away from the story’s effect on those who see it. To this day, TMZ and pulp tabloids have splashed salacious headlines, spreading tawdry theories about what may have happened when Sen. Kennedy left a party on Chappaquiddick Island with Kopechne and drove his 1967 Oldsmobile into that pond. Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan have fashioned a screenplay that delves into both the accident and the attempt to give Kennedy political cover in its aftermath.

Australian actor Jason Clarke is an equivocating Kennedy: flawed, oddly childlike, crushed by the assassinations of his older brothers and the weight of being expected to pick up their fallen mantles and press on. Kate Mara is the intelligent Kopechne, a former “boiler room” woman in Robert F. Kennedy’s ill-fated presidential campaign. Two actors known mostly for comedy play the men who first come to Kennedy’s aid. Ed Helms is Joe Gargan, the cousin and lawyer who planned the party that night. Jim Gaffigan has the role of Paul Markham, a U.S. Attorney from Massachusetts and a Kennedy pal. These characters dive in the pond to search for Kopechne, then urge the senator to do the right thing and alert the authorities, immediately.

He doesn’t. Instead, Kennedy calls his father, Joe, wheelchair-ridden and virtually speechless as the result of his 1961 stroke. Bruce Dern brings the stricken patriarch to frightening life through both twisted demeanor and visage, still controlling by sheer will. The only word he can muster to his youngest son is, “Alibi.”

Within 24 hours of the incident, as Apollo 11’s lunar module came closer and closer to settling onto the surface of the moon, old Joe has summoned a brain trust from JFK’s administration, speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols) and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) among them, to plot a course for Teddy and navigate the maelstrom.

Eventually, a week following Kopechne’s death, Kennedy reads a speech to the American people over the three existing TV networks. Against Gargan’s advice, he did not resign his senate seat. As the decades unfolded, both for his state and his party, Ted Kennedy distinguished himself as a senator — something his brothers John and Robert did not accomplish.

Chappaquiddick is a good film, worthy of a few more weeks in the theaters. Grim, even eerie in some aspects, and speculative. We’ll never know all of what happened on July 18, 1969, and in the days following — why Kennedy left a woman behind, why he didn’t report it to police. In life, he could never explain it. As drama, Chappaquiddick leaves you hushed. One’s heart bleeds for the girl whose family lost their daughter. As filmmaking, it’s creditably matter-of-fact. As you watch, you’re conflicted as to how anyone could have survived something like this, politically. Then you turn on the news and realize, a half-century has done little to change the machinations of the human condition or the body politic.