What it’s about: Ted Kennedy [Jason Clarke] is the youngest man to serve as the majority whip in the history of the U.S. Senate. And still, he remains in the long shadow of his three older brothers—Joe, John, and Robert—who have all been tragically killed. On his annual vacation in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, a week of drinking and sailing in Martha’s Vineyard, another tragedy occurs. Driving late at night with a former assistant to his brother Bobby’s presidential campaign, his car careens off of a bridge and into shallow water. Ted is able to escape, but he leaves Mary Jo [Kate Mara] behind. In order to maintain his reputation and status in his family, Ted works to minimize his culpability in her death by using his political resources.
Whenever a Kennedy is portrayed on screen, it is easy to come off as a caricature -- the stylized voice and particular look is hard to not feel like dressing up. Even in good performances, such as Natalie Portman in Jackie, it is hard to completely blend into the character. All in all, Jason Clarke does a pretty good job. The Kennedy accent is subtle and natural. He is a bit too made up to completely look like an actual human being, but Clarke does have a striking resemblance to Kennedy.
Chappaquiddick opens with news footage voice-over describing the deaths of Joe, John, and Bobby to set the tone of a deeply cursed family. This establishes just enough sympathy for Ted to begin the film. Though what he did was horribly irresponsible, even criminal, it is aligned with the morose, tragic sadness that clouded over his entire life.
To its credit, Chappaquiddick doesn’t pull punches or skirt around responsibility. It isn’t as salacious as one might expect or monger in rumors that were present at the time of the tragedy, such as Ted and Mary Jo having an affair prior to her death. It would have been really easy to push this narrative, but the film keeps the events pretty straight.
For the most part, Ted isn’t portrayed as a calculated character. There are moments at the end of the film that contradict that, but he’s shown to be emotional and privately remorseful for what happened.
The second half of Chappaquiddick unfortunately and confusingly becomes a PR procedural that borders on a comedy. Almost like a comedy of errors, Kennedy’s team of unnamed men in finely tailored suits bumble through their story, emphasizing the Ted’s own take as the defective Kennedy brother.
A bit about a neck brace is played out of an absurd slapstick movie.
The biggest misstep of Chappaquiddick is the father-son subplot which I suppose is meant to add character stakes and sympathy to Ted by further establishing that he wasn’t well equipped to succeed by his spiteful patriarch. It is so comically overdone, though, that it detracts from the film’s message. Bruce Dern as Joseph Kennedy Sr. isn’t exactly to blame but the portrayal is too melodramatic to take seriously -- this was immediate from the character’s introduction with heavy breathing and grunting over the phone.
By the end of Chappaquiddick, I don’t know exactly how to see Ted Kennedy. Was he an unscrupulous conniver, using his political position to escape public and legal scrutiny while betraying the trust of his closest friends or an unfortunate man born into a family with too high expectations who found himself in an unfortunate situation? Of course it is a bit of both, but the film doesn’t naturally blend these opposing points-of-view from scene to scene. Ted doesn’t have an arc as much as he is on one end of this spectrum at any point. For what should be a serious exploration of a complicated internal struggle, Chappaquiddick’s tonal shifts and unclear character study make it an inconsistent disappointment.