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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 4:02 am | Fair 48º


Cinema in Focus: ‘Chappaquiddick’

3 Stars — Sobering

Sometimes in remembering events that happened during our lifetime, it is hard to know truth from fiction. Biographers can put into words whatever story they want to tell, but only those who were there know the real history. For the rest of us, we will have to settle for dramatic retellings of the tale and make our own decisions about what it reveals.

Chappaquiddick Island, a part of the town of Edgartown, Mass., is a small peninsula on the eastern end of Martha's Vineyard. It is best known for being the location of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s involvement in the 1969 fatal car accident that took the life of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, and changed the course of both of their young lives forever.

Being the remaining son of a beloved American family, Kennedy was destined to follow in the footsteps of his hero brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy. President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 had left an indelible mark on the psyche of the country, and when Sen. Robert Kennedy sought to regain the White House in 1968, it seemed like the end of a long national nightmare. Then, the unthinkable happened, and Robert Kennedy himself was assassinated on the evening of his triumphant win in California for the nomination to be the next president of the United States.

At his funeral, Ted Kennedy gave a eulogy that galvanized the nation in its grief, and he immediately rose to become the heir apparent of the legacy created by his siblings. So much hope was riding on his shoulders, and Ted Kennedy would be the first to admit that the weight of that expectation was crushing. It was having a devastating impact on his marriage with his wife, Joan, as she was becoming despondent, withdrawn and descending into chemical numbness.

Ted also was under the crushing expectations of his powerful father, Joseph, a man who was an American “kingmaker.” Powerful in his ambitions, he had married Rose, the daughter of the mayor of Boston, and they had a dynastic cast of nine children who would go on to change the nation in many positive ways. Joseph Kennedy was appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St James's in England, and he had determined that his oldest son, Joe, one day would become president of the United States. Tragically, Joe was killed in battle in World War II. With three sons in a row destined to become president, and all three now dead in service to their country, the level of expectation on young Ted was overwhelming.

Chappaquiddick is close enough to the facts to almost be a documentary. Much of the incident was shrouded in the shadow of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon on the same weekend. While the world watched and gasped at Neil Armstrong first setting foot on the moon, Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) was gasping for air trying to cope with a small party on the island going from bad to a disaster, and watching his loving friend die in front of him — along with his reputation, legacy and family expectation.

Kopechne (Kate Mara) drowned that night when Ted Kennedy lost control of his car and drove off a bridge, landing upside down in a shallow river. Although he got out, he couldn’t save Kopechne, and in despair he found his way back to the cabin where the rest of his team was staying. With the help of his colleagues, they jumped into the river but could not find her. While his best friend and attorney, Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), pleaded with Kennedy to go directly to the police and tell them what had happened, Kennedy wandered back to Edgartown to his hotel and called his father, Joseph (Bruce Dern), to ask for his help.

Joseph Kennedy Sr. was only weeks away from his own death, and having suffered from a stroke and unable to speak, he was a shadow of the powerful man he once was. Even so, he made it clear that he was angry, deeply disappointed in his son, and more interested in protecting the family name than in giving his son wise advice. The end result was that Ted Kennedy went to bed without reporting the crime. 

The course of the rest of the story is what transpired as a result of taking his father’s advice. It is a fact that the car and body were found the next morning before Kennedy reported the accident. The investigation and handling of the case was a classic story of small-town politics. The public relations aftermath was handled by his father’s henchmen, his relationship with his father was destroyed, and his best friend and adopted brother, Gargan, never spoke to him again, thinking that he should have resigned his Senate seat.

After pleading his case to the nation on national TV, Ted Kennedy was given grace by the public and received the lightest of sentences by the court. Whether or not what he did following this tragedy was redemption for his actions, only history will tell. For the rest of us, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

Ted Kennedy went on to become one of the most beloved senators of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and he died a restored hero to people on both sides of the political aisle on Aug. 25, 2009. He served in the Senate for 47 years, the fourth-longest continuously serving senator in U.S. history. His son, Patrick Kennedy, served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District from 1995 to 2011. At his retirement, it was the first time since 1947 that a member of the Kennedy family was not serving in either Congress or as president of the United States.


» Do you lay the blame for what Ted Kennedy did that night after the accident on him or on his father? At what age does a person have to make his own decisions and account for them?

» The ambition of Joseph is seen in all of his sons. How has your father or mother’s ambition, or lack of ambition, for you affected your life?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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