The myths have not left us even in a supposedly rational age. Especially in an imperial society what is past is prologue. With every passing year historical memory takes on a new gloss, and the darker shades are colored over with wishful thinking. In the United States the Kennedy family personifies the very idea of national myth. Chiseled in stone, the personas of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, both assassinated in their political primes in the 1960s, are equally romanticized and debated. Admired for their patrician air in a culture that worships opulence, yet deconstructed by scholars of realpolitik, the twin gods of American liberalism evoke a special allure via grainy photographs and film reels. It is the third brother, Edward Kennedy, denied his turn at the throne, who wanders under a shadow infused with that most bitter of phrases, “what could have been.”
The fall of Ted Kennedy came about not through martyrdom but through plain human folly. An evening in 1969, drinking with friends, a late night drive with a young woman in a car and a subsequent, fatal crash into a lake forever shattered the Kennedy mirage. All of a sudden, one of the Kennedys was reduced to the quintessential aristocrat, dabbling in deadly play which the estate moves in swiftly to sweep into shadows. The Chappaquiddick incident is now the subject of the film Chappaquiddick. Opening in theaters April 6, it is a haunted work draped in shadow, portraying Ted Kennedy as a mere mortal reduced to scheming, begging and finding comfort in the influence of wealth. In the wrong hands this material could be spun into overwrought melodrama, but director John Curran has instead made an engrossing, sobering film about the machinations of power and the wastage of spoiled lives. At its center is an impressive performance by Jason Clarke, who does not imitate Kennedy but instead channels a man ruined by his very upbringing, trapping himself through the folly of pure, human missteps.
It is the summer of 1969 and Senator Kennedy (Clarke) gathers with friends on the Massachusetts coast in Chappaquiddick. He is riding high as the youngest majority whip ever to hold the post in the U.S. Congress. With the memory of his slain brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy, fresh in the public consciousness, the pressure is on for Kennedy to aim for the White House. As his inner circle gathers to relax and also plan ahead for the big campaign, Kennedy encourages a strategist from his late brother Bobby’s team, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), to come onboard. On one fateful night at the cottage, Kennedy and Mary Jo wander off to his car and go for a drive. It ends in a crash and mortal tragedy, with Kennedy escaping from the wreck while Mary Jo is left to drown. With his career on the line, Kennedy’s inner circle begins an intricate campaign to blur the facts and save his image.
Curran himself is a man who projects a personality of focus and ease. His films, which include The Painted Veil, Praise and Tracks, are visually refined pieces where the inner workings of personalities take the foreground. On a cloudy Tuesday he walks into a sparse room at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills in good cheer, but with one air of one who is eternally busy. The Chappaquiddick story has never really been given its proper due in cinema. In literature Joyce Carol Oates wrote the ultimate, gothic fictionalization of the event with her novel Black Water. But Curran is telling the actual story, with a script written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan culled from official transcripts, court documents and interviews. “In September, which isn’t that long ago, we premiered this film, and two months later it became even more relevant. It’s a different time,” says Curran when reflecting on the sudden urgency of this story in light of #MeToo and the ongoing debate about sex and power. “I think that it’s certainly a time of reckoning for powerful, entitled white or men of all color. I think it was in the wind. This movie became hyper-relevant by mid-fall.”
What of the Kennedys themselves? Slightly reduced in their political power, they nonetheless remain a noteworthy clan. “I’ve been told something second-hand, but not directly.” There is a tense pause. “I mean they don’t want to know about it, they’re not going to watch it, they know it’s being made. It’s understandable that they don’t want any connection to it.” However one request has filtered down from the compound at Hyannis Port. “The comment that came to me, through a friend, from the Kennedys, was ‘just remember they were human.’”
If you consider if this accident didn’t happen, it’s very possible that he would have skated into the presidential nomination in ’72, it’s very likely he would have beaten Nixon, it’s very likely the Vietnam War would have ended earlier, the Southern Strategy wouldn’t have been there. We wouldn’t have had Watergate. It’s a pivotal weekend in American history. —John Curran
Chappaquiddick functions as both dark human drama and as historical speculation. It is the portrait of a man who could have been greater, and this goes to the heart of how the death of Mary Joe Kopechne derails one route history could have taken. “If you consider if this accident didn’t happen, it’s very possible that he would have skated into the presidential nomination in ’72, it’s very likely he would have beaten Nixon, it’s very likely the Vietnam War would have ended earlier, the Southern Strategy wouldn’t have been there. We wouldn’t have had Watergate. It’s a pivotal weekend in American history.”
Curran was free to shape and explore this moment as cinema because the story was so well-developed when it fell into his hands. “I received a fully-formed script. By the time I was onboard the script was pretty tight. We had to do some re-working for production and cost purposes, but all my questions to the writers were flagging certain areas. I wasn’t as familiar with the story as they were. All my initial questions to the writers were, ‘this feels like an invention’ and literally every single thing that I flagged they were like ‘no, actually here’s the evidence, here’s a fact.’ So that was a great relief to me that they had done their homework. The way I came out of it was the same as their instinct, which was let’s stay as close to the facts as possible.” The great challenge for the historical dramatist is precisely the capturing of private moments which are closed off to us outsiders unless recordings or journals are produced. “We could invent dialogue, but not actions,” clarifies Curran, emphasizing that every major act in this film is based on truth. “In the process of making a film there are always revisions. I’m always hand-balling stuff back to writers because we may have to cut a scene or reduce some stuff.”
The role of Ted Kennedy as portrayed by Clarke is astounding in its range. Here is a man born with assured status, yet he is hounded and haunted by the legacy of his slain brothers. This mixes with his own aloofness as a child of privilege. A woman has died, yet he expects his inner circle to simply take care of it. There are reminders here of Anthony Hopkins’s own, unforgettable performance as Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s 1995 epic Nixon, in which Hopkins does not imitate the notorious fiend, instead he channels a persona scarred by paranoias and deep-rooted insecurities. “Jason came with the package,” says Curran proudly. “Jason was actually in my very first film. I’d lived in Australia for 17 years and my very first film there he had an 8-second walk-on part. He’s a great, nuanced actor. But he’s also a really funny guy. I don’t think I would have taken this film on if I wasn’t saddled with an actor who I couldn’t believe could transcend himself and become Ted Kennedy. Jason has the broad face and chin and eyes, and the build. I knew he wouldn’t do a shtick, that he would make it his own. If you don’t get that right it’s just going to be laughable.”
There is much Shakespearean tragedy in Chappaquiddick, as Ted runs from the scene of the accident and then kicks the family machine into gear. He is not above putting on a neck brace to give the illusion of injury at Kopechne’s funeral. One of the film’s most riveting performances belongs to Bruce Dern as the disabled patriarch Joseph Kennedy. Confined to a wheelchair, muted by a stroke, the old man still summons a bestial fury to demand Ted take command and cover up his crime. His one, single line in the film consists of one word, “alibi.” Curran shares that Dern devoured the role with much gusto. “It’s not easy casting people of that age to play diminished characters near death. It’s not comfortable for them. They want to play people with life and hope. But he was all over it. Even his managers told him not to do it because there’s no dialogue. He was thrilled and excited to play it with his eyes, that’s how he told me he was going to play it.”
For Curran, simply reading the script was a revelation. “The script begins as a tragedy and then I found myself laughing and then feeling sort of disgusted with myself, then laughing again, then feeling disgust with Ted, but in the next scene feeling empathy for Ted. All these shifting emotions I wanted to capture as a filmmaker. To get the humor right I wanted to get actors you could believe are lawyers, intelligent, educated guys and deliver the nuance of humor that is in this script.”
The morbid humor of such a tale is captured through the performance of Jim Gaffigan as Kennedy confidant, Paul Markham, who Kennedy tasks with being part of the team attempting to clear his name. Gaffigan is new to this kind of dramatic filmmaking, but for Curran such a choice makes perfect sense. “I find that comedians, because most of them are kind of depressed people, are good at tapping into pathos. A lot of dramatic actors that are very good are not very funny. I did look for comedic actors who could portray the group surrounding Ted.”
Visually, Curran’s style in the film is baroque yet stark. Chappaquiddick itself feels like one last gasp of the American 1950s. The small-town vibe adds an extra eeriness to the nature of Kennedy’s scandal. There is jarring power to a moment where Kopechne’s body is raised out of the darkened lake and how it contrasts to the humble, small town demeanor of the place. One wonders if the passage of time has altered the area much. “Chappaquiddick in the sixties is very different than what it is now,” says the director. “It was a working class fishing community, it wasn’t the high end resort that it is now. Look at Jaws. That was shot on Martha’s Vineyard in 1974, so there wasn’t much distance between the filming of that movie and what happened at Chappaquiddick. I didn’t want it to be the elitist high-end, white kind of resort that it is now.”
Another cultural element Curran sought to capture was the kind of naïve view towards power which many Americans still held, even amid the firestorms of the film’s period setting. “We are making a movie set in 1969, its pre-Watergate. People of this era looked at their senators and elected officials in a different light, with a different faith. There is a lack of cynicism in the way they approach elected officials, which is why the story plays out the way it does.”
Filmed in hindsight of the actual moment, the film’s most harrowing use of editing is in intercutting Kennedy’s rush to clear himself with moments inside the drowning car as Kopechne faces death alone, feeling the waters rise while uttering prayers in vaporous breath. “The inquest testimony, when the diver sent to the wreckage gives his testimony, is about the way he found the body in the car clutched, as if she was gasping for a last breath of air. His diagram that he submitted as evidence, showing where the car was, where the water was, that was very eye-opening to realize that she was very likely alive for at least a couple of hours. She died a very lonely and excruciating death.”
Through-out the film, like a distant transmission from some other reality, we hear the news broadcasts and NASA transmissions regarding the first Moon landing, which occurred just as the Chappaquiddick scandal was unfolding. For Curran this was both quite the revelation and a powerful, narrative device. “I had never conflated the Moon landing with Chappaquiddick, until I read the script. That was pretty astounding to me.”
Cinema culling from history poses that eternal question Pontius Pilate is said to have asked, what is truth? “I tried to make it as non-partisan as possible. I don’t know if you’re ever really successful. But even if you do it as a documentary, is that a truth? My previous film, Tracks, was based on a woman’s book who is still alive. Her advice to me was ‘go with God, do what you gotta do, because even my book is not the truth.’ She doesn’t have a lot of faith in memory. That sort of stuck with me when I was making this. We could have run around in circles, beating ourselves over the truth. We did as much research as much as we possibly could. What you’re really doing is an impression of the truth. That’s the best you can go for.”
What Curran is certain of is the honesty with which he approached the story. “I didn’t want to infuse it with a false sentimentality or a partisan angle, or with a contrived angle of how you’re supposed to feel. We could have gone a lot harder on Ted, or a lot softer. No matter what you do with this film, it’s a political film. Two people could watch this film, one could love Ted Kennedy, one could hate Ted Kennedy, and they will be watching two different films.”
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.