“History usually has the final word on these things,” says one character in “Chappaquiddick.”
If that’s the case, this movie’s final word on Ted Kennedy is devastating; “Chappaquiddick” makes him look every bit as spineless and contemptible as his detractors kept insisting in the decades after he drunkenly drove off a Massachusetts bridge, resulting in the death of the woman who was with him.
Having left the scene with Mary Jo Kopechne still inside the submerged auto, Kennedy did not report the accident for 10 hours.
I’m sure you can tell that despite being only nine at the time, I never had one ounce of respect for Kennedy after Chappaquiddick. Not even when the so-called “Lion of the Senate” was reelected seven times in the ensuing years.
This may account for my visceral response to the new film about the scandalous 1969 incident. I found it spellbinding from start to finish: brilliantly edited, beautifully acted and governed by a strong moral stance in which we always recognize right and wrong -- even as Kennedy and crew jockey to salvage his career with heartless fabrication, obfuscation and manipulation.
Jason Clarke (“Mudbound,” “Great Gatsby,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) is uncanny as the long-time senator. Though his New England accent is a trifle uneven, he has Kennedy’s looks down pat; and what’s more, he manages to paint Ted as a world-class slimeball without ever quite effacing his humanity. We’re shocked by Ted’s actions, but Clarke is so convincing that we have to ask ourselves how often we too have waffled, lied or bailed when confronted with our own failures and bad choices.
Bruce Dern has hardly a word as the crippled, wheelchair-bound Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of a family seemingly cursed by catastrophe (don’t forget their oldest son, Joseph Jr., had been killed in World War II). But Dern is so mesmerizing that if Oscar can remember him nine months from now, he might get the statue he so narrowly lost for 2013’s “Nebraska.”
Among the strong supporting cast -- Jim Gaffigan, Olivia Thirlby, Kate Mara as Kopechne -- the other standout is Ed Helms; the former “Office” star is sensational playing Kennedy family friend Joe Gargan, who serves as the much-needed voice of integrity throughout.
The film’s late-sixties production design is flawless. Even more effective is its incisive editing, which establishes an ethical framework by juxtaposing various political shenanigans against footage of the crash and its aftermath.
Curiously, though, the film only hints at discoveries that Kopechne seems to have suffocated rather than drowned -- that she may have lived as much as two hours, breathing air trapped inside the car.
It makes you wonder whether Kennedy’s career could possibly have survived in our more female-empowered era.
“Chappaquiddick” is at once a character study, a compelling drama and a clarion call to courage and conscience in a crisis.
Catch it if you can.
directed by John Curran
Run time: 106 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language and historical smoking