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Movie Night – ‘Chappaquiddick’ recounts Kennedy’s crash

By Bradley Griffith

Now available for home rental is “Chappaquiddick,” the true story of one fateful night and the consequences for a member of one of America’s most notable and powerful families. Whether you know the story or not, “Chappaquiddick” is an interesting film.

In the summer of 1969 United States Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is living in the shadow of his deceased brothers, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Ted wants to break free of their shadow and, more important to him than anything else in the world, make his father, Joe (Bruce Dern), proud.

Ted knows that many people want him to run for president. Ted is not sure what he wants. Despite the fact that he is 37 years old and that he comes from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the United States (or maybe because of it), Ted is still searching to find out who he really is and find his path in the world.

In July of 1969, Ted travels to Chappaquiddick Island off of Martha’s Vineyard to meet his cousin, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), and U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), for a sailboat race. Joe also arranges for some women from Robert Kennedy’s campaign to meet them for a party after the race.

At the party Ted and Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) hit it off. Everyone at the party is drinking, including Ted. After all, it is a party. Ted and Mary Jo leave the party with Ted in the driver’s seat of his car. After making a brief stop to look at the stars they pass a police car. Knowing that he has had a few drinks, Ted wants to avoid the policeman as quickly as possible and speeds away.

As Ted takes a curve in the darkness of night he sees a bridge too late. The car flips on its top in a pond below the bridge. The next scene shows Ted, soaking wet and in shock, on the bridge.  Mary Jo never made it out of the car. Soon, the cover-up will begin.

It’s a daunting task to take on such a controversial moment in U.S. history for a movie. There are many questions the filmmaker must answer before making the movie. How will they portray Ted? Will they use only known and verifiable facts, or include speculation and innuendo? Will the movie be political, or just tell the story as it actually happened?

In this instance, the filmmakers made all the right choices. Without giving away everything about the movie, there was no special deference paid to Ted or the Kennedy family in general. The only decent person in the Kennedy family, and maybe in the entire movie, was cousin Joe. Neither the Kennedy family nor their advisors care about Mary Jo Kopechne. They only care about Ted and the Kennedy name.

Seeing a story that you have only read or heard about brought to life on the TV screen was surprisingly satisfying. The fact that the story is told as a movie rather than a documentary made the movie more enjoyable and easier to watch. At several points it feels like you get a sense of what Ted was made of, who he really was inside. But he never had the courage to stand up to his stroke-disabled father.

There are several questions that “Chappaquiddick” clearly poses to the viewer, and not all of them are answered by the movie. You can see how far Ted and his cadre of advisors are willing to go to protect him and his last name.

The movie doesn’t answer whether Ted was actually impaired by alcohol or how did Ted get out of the car and did he try to rescue Mary Jo.

Despite the fact that there are a few unanswered questions, “Chappaquiddick” sheds some light on this long-ago scandal and made this small bit of history entertaining.

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Grade: B+

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking (not kidding).