‘Chappaquiddick’ Addresses Mystery, Unmasks Myth

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The Kennedys’ greatest achievement is using people and getting them to ask for more.

That skill is on display throughout the new movie Chappaquiddick, which opens nationwide tonight. True to life, a small army of helpers appears whenever Ted Kennedy needs them, all looking to protect him as if he’s their liege lord and their major purpose in life is to serve him. That’s also the way he acts much of the time, as if reinforcing his authority by demanding service.

In between, though, there are moments of introspection. He longs for a simpler and more honest life. He flirts with giving up not only the forthcoming presidential campaign that he doesn’t want but even the political career that he likes. Kennedy comes across not as pure monster but more like Herod Antipas, someone attracted to integrity and truth who ultimately chooses himself instead.

This outstanding movie never hypes the facts. When it fills in gaps with conjecture – which is necessary, since Ted Kennedy never publicly told the truth about what happened, and the other principal was never able to tell her side – it does so judiciously. The screenwriters’ guesses make sense.

The mood is pitch-perfect – a melancholy air hangs over the narrative, broken by occasional unintentionally funny lines advancing the cover-up. When Kennedy likens his flaws to those of Moses, for instance, his cousin Joe Gargan points out that Moses never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea. Gargan also at one point asks Ted’s other advisers how they can turn Ted into a martyr when the other person in the car is the one who died.

The familiar story begins with a late-night party Friday, July 18, 1969 at a cottage on Chappaquiddick Island, which is a three-minute ferry ride away from downtown Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. The party was ostensibly a thank-you to the so-called Boiler Room Girls, a half-dozen single women in their 20s who had worked feverishly on Bobby Kennedy’s run for president the year before and had been devastated by his assassination.

The Kennedys aren’t sticklers for gratitude, though, and the movie offers a plausible and ingenious ulterior motive for the reunion – that Ted wanted to persuade Mary Jo to come back to Washington to work for him. Chappaquiddick is the first handling of the story I’ve seen to make Mary Jo Kopechne into a three-dimensional character, as something other than a secretary smitten with all things Kennedy and a potential Kennedy plaything. As the movie suggests, Kopechne had talent. By 1969 she had worked her way up from typist to nascent political consultant. She had already worked on two non-Kennedy political campaigns outside Washington in between Bobby’s death in June 1968 and her visit to the Vineyard in July 1969.

As for what she and Ted were doing when they left the party that fateful late night, the movie speculates – plausibly – that Kopechne was interested in talking to Ted about his political future and her own reluctance to return to Washington after the assassination of his brother Bobby because it wouldn’t be the same. That Ted may have also had something else in mind is hinted at, but the movie suggests Mary Jo didn’t. That comports with reports about her commitment to religion and her convent-school demureness.

Readers familiar with Leo J. Damore’s 1988 book Senatorial Privilege will recognize the rest of the story. (Spoiler alert:  One of the two people in the Oldsmobile Delmont 88 doesn’t make it.) Kennedy, under the influence of several drinks, nearly cuts off a car being driven by an off-duty special police officer still in uniform, and after a pause drives too fast down a dirt road toward the Dike Bridge. (Damore suggests in his book that Kennedy might have been trying to get away from the officer, Huck Look, for fear he’d be arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.) He gets to a low bridge with an odd 27-degree angle and no guardrails, and doesn’t turn enough to the left to avoid driving off it and into Poucha Pond. The car flips over and rests on the bottom. He somehow gets out of the car, but Mary Jo doesn’t.

So far it’s a sad but relatable story. Many people who drink alcohol have driven under the influence of it after leaving a party. A dark road late at night presents obstacles to the best of drivers. A bridge with a weird angle and no guardrails is a hazard.

But then the story descends into depths of dishonesty and venality remarkable even for Massachusetts. Kennedy didn’t report the accident until 10 hours after it happened. In between, he attempted to concoct an alibi and floated inaccurate versions of what happened in an attempt to wriggle out of the problem.

To be fair to him, he surely thought Kopechne had died shortly after the car hit the water. But the diver who found her body the next morning said she appeared to be clutching a seat to lift her face toward the floor of the overturned vehicle in what may have been an air pocket. He theorized she could have survived for hours before running out of oxygen. In short, while Kennedy struggled to figure out a way to salvage his political career, his passenger was struggling to breathe.

Still, even if Kennedy’s actions were selfish, cowardly, and cruel — which they were — what he did and didn’t do are at least understandable from the point of view of self-interest. When cornered, we all look for a way out, and in times of stress immoral ways sometimes appear more attractive than they might otherwise.

The weirdest part of the Chappaquiddick story isn’t the accident, and it isn’t Ted Kennedy’s callousness. It’s all the people who fall in line to help him. The Edgartown police chief, Domenick James Arena, doesn’t even bother to interview Ted before he leaves the island and later makes public statements that offer support for Kennedy’s strained version of events. State officials conspire to fix Ted’s expired driver’s license to make it seem as though it were still valid. A death certificate is hurriedly signed, and the body of Mary Jo is shipped off the island and back to her parents in New Jersey even before an autopsy can be performed. (An autopsy might have shown that Kopechne died of asphyxiation hours after the crash, which would have rendered Kennedy’s actions and inaction an obvious case of manslaughter, which would have sent him to jail.) A prosecutor tips off Ted’s representative on what to expect. Lawyers and political consultants concoct tortured descriptions of what happened in an attempt to deflect blame from the senator. Even one of Mary Jo’s erstwhile friends seems determined to advance Ted’s interests over the truth.

If any of a half-dozen or more public officials had done their duty, Ted Kennedy’s goose would have been cooked. But they didn’t, and in less than a week he plea-bargained his way to a charge of leaving the scene of accident, a misdemeanor with no jail time.

What did all these people get for their dereliction and lies? Not much, it seems. Several people who had otherwise successful careers in law enforcement, the law, and politics went away stained forever for trying to help Ted. Whatever reflected glory they were seeking dissipated before it reached them.

Recent movies based on real people try to make actors look and sound exactly like their real-life characters. The actors sometimes come off as performing an impression rather than playing a role. But Jason Clarke, who plays Ted, tries something different. He looks and sounds enough like Kennedy to approximate him, but he doesn’t try to parrot him. The approach is useful when he portrays the speculative scenes in the movie that depict conversations the details of which are unknowable. He is creating a character, not attempting to mimic a hologram. Along the way he manages to make Kennedy vaguely sympathetic without undermining his proper status as chief villain. It’s a deft portrayal that ought to bring a heap of award nominations next year.

Some of the most moving and disturbing scenes are between Ted and his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. (played by Bruce Dern), as Ted tries to project an aura of confidence and control to the disapproving patriarch. The autocratic old man, debilitated by a stroke eight years earlier, can’t talk and has only months to live, yet projects power and manipulates the cover-up by bringing in the men he figures can fix it. Old Man Joe’s silent stare from his decrepit face is one of the most memorable images of the movie.

Kate Mara plays Mary Jo as troubled but confident, in control of her emotions and capable of making decisions – emotionally miles ahead of Ted. Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) is the one sympathetic figure on Ted’s side of things. He didn’t cover himself in glory; he could have reported the accident himself, for instance. But he constantly tried to get Ted to do the right thing – something Ted seems to have longed for, but could never bring himself to do.

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