(Directed by John Curran) (2018)
We all know what we know of the story: in July 1969 Edward Kennedy, Senator for Massachusetts, competed in the annual Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta. Most of the Senator’s entourage were staying at a hotel on the mainland. A cottage on Chappaquiddick Island (near to the larger island of Martha’s Vineyard) was hired for a reunion of The Boiler Room Girls, six single women in their twenties who had worked for Robert Kennedy during his fatal presidential campaign. At sometime during the night of Friday July 18, the Senator and a secretary, Mary Jo Kopechne, left the party in the cottage and headed back to the mainland. Kennedy said that Kopechne asked for a lift to her hotel. (Why, then, did she leave her handbag and keys in the cottage?) On the way, Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile off the dinky little Dike Bridge into the tidal Poucha Pond. The car landed top down; Kennedy got out, Kopechne did not.
Unlike the rumours, this film does not have Kennedy drying off and rejoining the party, rather he calls out his lawyer, cousin Joseph Gargan and his lawyer friend Paul F. Markham and takes them to the scene. They dive fruitlessly, trying to open the doors underwater, while Kennedy wallows on the bridge.
Jason Clarke’s Kennedy is a sad, confused man, none too bright; his life blackened by the gloom of the long shadows cast by his more able brothers, Joseph Jnr, John, Bobby and their deaths. Clarke plays him, at least in the early parts of the film, with rather more Kennedy charm than we remember Ted as possessing, and in the later scenes, as every bit as arrogant as any Kennedy we have known. (He wears a new neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral).
Bruce Dern turns in a tour de force performance as the crippling and crippled Joseph Snr, Ted’s none-too sympathetic father. As does Andria Blackman as Ted’s beautiful and none-too happy wife Joan (although she doesn’t have much to do, being a Kennedy wife and all).
In flashbacks we see versions of the incident – Ted diving and trying to open the doors, or not; Ted and his accomplices rowing across the channel or Ted swimming it alone; Ted and Mary-Jo getting close, or not.
There’s no doubt that Kennedy drove negligently – stoned, drunk, sleepy or zoned-out, he missed that sharp turn and went over the edge of a poorly designed, rail-less bridge. But, as we know well from later American presidential types, it’s not the initial error, bad as it might be, but the cover-up and the lies that’ll drown your career. Clarke’s Kennedy is aptly inscrutable as he goes about in the midnight hours after the accident. He bathes and dresses before calling his father (Kennedy apparently called several people) but doesn’t call the police. He seems to think that the car just might not be traced back to him. The team assembled by the all-powerful Kennedys, (Sorensen, etc) mucks things up even more. Kennedy gets a few months suspended sentence and goes on Massachusetts TV [quoting from Profiles in Courage! – Ed.]
Kate Mara plays the short-lived Kennedy groupie Kopechne with insight and in a bad blonde wig. Her drowning will never leave you. Nor will Kennedy’s call to her mother. Mary-Jo’s friend Rachel Schiff is played with verve and panache by Olivia Thirlby, whose greeting to Senator Ted is always, “how’s your wife?”
This is a very beautiful movie – the pastels of Massachusetts in the 1960s, and the glistening waters, are a lovely and sedative background to the dark horror of the incident and the callous washing of the blood from Kennedy’s hands.
It’s a thin story, stretched too far and simplified even further, but made well and subtly damning of yet another Kennedy.[“They needed Peter Lawford to ‘clean-up'” – Ed.]