This suspenseful historical drama examines the infamous 1969 incident when Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) accidentally drove off a bridge, resulting in the death of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).
Among the most morally murky episodes in late-20th-century US politics — and that's a crowded field — was the drowning of campaign specialist Mary Jo Kopechne in what would become known as the Chappaquiddick Incident. Kopechne was trapped in a car that Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, following a night of festivities. This sombre, suspenseful recreation of the accident and its aftermath, directed by John Curran (TIFF 2013's Tracks), invites us to speculate on how this shameful scandal came to be.
The Kennedy dynasty had lost three heirs apparent by 1969, and Ted (Jason Clarke) was, at the time, the family's last hope to carry their name and ambitions into the upper echelons of US politics. Kennedy patriarch Joe (Bruce Dern), however, always considered his youngest son a ne'er-do-well — and he never let Ted forget it. The party on Chappaquiddick reunited the "Boiler Room Girls" who had served on Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, among them Mary Jo (Kate Mara). Ted whisks Mary Jo away for a reckless moonlight drive that ends in tragedy. But the more profound malfeasance begins after the drowning — itself dramatized here in harrowing detail — when a battalion of spin doctors gets to work on covering up the incident, using the Apollo 11 moon landing as a distraction.
What makes Chappaquiddick such a brilliant historical drama is the way Curran and company focus on moment-by-moment choices instead of suggesting some overarching conspiracy. This is an unsettling film about the way power strives to protect itself while bystanders are left by the wayside.
Roy Thomson Hall
Winter Garden Theatre