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Film / Chappaquiddick

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Chappaquiddick is a 2017 American drama film directed by John Curran and written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. The film stars Jason Clarke as Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy, and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne. The cast is rounded out with Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, and Bruce Dern in major supporting roles.

It is the summer of 1969. Ted Kennedy, the youngest of the famed Kennedy brothers, is a political rockstar. Already an established senator from Massachusetts, he made history that January by becoming the youngest majority whip in U.S. Senate history. There are rumblings about how he might eventually run for President in 1972, following in the footsteps of both his brothers John and Robert Kennedy. But at the same time, Ted Kennedy is privately struggling to maintain the legacy established by both his legendary brothers and his domineering father.


In July of 1969, Kennedy and a coterie of his friends (as well as former members of his brother Robert's 1968 presidential campaign) retreat to the Martha's Vineyard getaway of Chappaquiddick Island for a weekend of fun and celebration. Late on the night of July 18, Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne (a member of Bobby's campaign staff) leave a party and drive to the beach.note  Kennedy loses control of the car as they approach a rickety, guardrail-free bridge over a tidal pond, and the car goes off the bridge and into the water. While Kennedy was able to escape the crash, Kopechne was unable to resurface, and would die in the car overnight. What followed was a national scandal that changed the course of presidential history, intimately exposing the broad reach of political power, the influence of America's most celebrated family, and the vulnerability (and political destruction) of Ted Kennedy, the youngest son, in the shadow of his family legacy.


The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, was widely released on April 6, 2018.

Chappaquiddick contains examples of:

  • Abled in the Adaptation: Downplayed - Joe Kennedy is still heavily crippled from the effects of his stroke like in real life, but is at least capable of speaking in sentences here, unlike his inability to say anything beyond the word "No" in real life at this point.
  • Abusive Parents: The film pulls no punches in depicting Ted's father, Joseph Sr., as a spiteful and ice-cold man who is more concerned with the legacy of the family and the look of things than of Ted. It’s highlighted in the last third of the movie, where, as the Chappaquiddick scandal threatens to engulf his son, Joseph Kennedy responds by slapping him for being such a royal screw-up.
  • Alcohol-Induced Stupidity: There's a heavy implication that Ted was drunk during the car crash and that this may have been what made him avoid contacting the police for so long.
  • Ambiguous Situation: There are a few shots that suggest Ted may have been having an extramarital affair with Mary Jo, and his handlers specifically want to head off such rumors after the accident. Ted’s relationship with his wife is likewise very rocky (they would divorce over a decade later) and he seems protective of Mary Jo even when throwing her under the bus would be a safer action for him. However, nothing is explicitly said or shown to indicate adultery actually is occurring.
  • Artistic License – Medicine: An In-Universe example. Ted’s handlers claim that a doctor has diagnosed Ted with a concussion from the crash and has prescribed him sedatives. The editor of the New York Times immediately points out this is the exact opposite of what is done to concussion victims, as sedatives interfere with determining the severity of the concussion and could even kill the patient.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The Kennedy family are a rich and well-established family in Massachusetts, and the film makes it clear their power and influence allows them to get away with acts that would destroy any other person.
  • Bad Liar:
    • One of the men on Ted's crisis team lies to a New York Times reporter by telling him that Ted suffered a concussion during the accident and his doctor has prescribed him sedatives to control the pain. The reporter immediately knows that he's being lied to because you don't give sedatives to somebody who has suffered a concussion (because doing so could actually kill them).
    • Ted himself is shown to be this, as his handlers point out his initial statement to the police was rife with contradictions that any halfway decent prosecutor could pick apart.
  • Blatant Lies: The film is deliberately ambiguous about just how much Ted tried to save Mary Jo. But in his statement (and indeed in Real Life), Ted claimed to have swam the channel from Chappaquiddick Island back to the mainland. In the movie, Ted is shown rowing back to the mainland with his friends Paul and Joseph after they fail to save her.
  • Broken Pedestal: Over the course of the movie, Ted becomes this to Joey. First Joey becomes increasingly incredulous with the actions of the crisis team (who are more concerned with preserving Ted’s image than about the fact that a woman is dead), and then with Ted himself for his willingness to go along with the whole charade. It's Ted’s decision not to read the concession speech that Joey wrote for him — on Ted’s request, no less — that pushes Joey over the edge. He became estranged from the Kennedy family for the remainder of his life until his passing in 2017.
  • Brutal Honesty: Just after Ted bares his soul, see below, Joe Sr. says "You...will...never be great."
  • The Consigliere: Joey Gargan (Helms) serves as this to Ted. He has always been a personal lawyer and "brother" of sorts to Ted, as well as a guy who can take care of problems. Part of the film's emotional tension comes from his increasing disbelief at how Ted (and his team) choose to handle the scandal.
  • Conveniently Timed Distraction: By sheer coincidence, Ted’s accident happens right in the middle of the Apollo 11 Moon mission (after the launch, but just before the actual moon landing). Ted’s handlers use this as a way to keep Ted’s name out of the papers, since they correctly assume more people would be paying attention to a historic moment in human history than a car crash in Massachusetts.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: There are numerous moments in the immediate aftermath of the accident where, had different choices been made, we would not have this scandal: Joey tells Ted to immediately report the accident. He doesn't. The head diver that the police has to fish out Mary Jo remarks that if he had gotten there at a normal response time, he could have gotten Kopechne out in 25 minutes, tops.
  • Da Chief: Police Chief Arena runs the Chappaquiddick Island Police Department, and is the one left in charge of investigating of the crash. Unlike most examples, he’s actually relatively calm and even kind of a pushover, allowing Ted to leave the police station without an interrogation and more-or-less lets him steer the investigation. It’s only towards the end that he starts to get suspicious of the story, but it’s too late by then to change anything.
  • Dark Comedy: Right before Mary Jo’s funeral, Ted fastens himself in a neck brace so that he looks more injured than he actually was. When Joe tells him it’s a terrible idea, Ted confidently says it’ll work and walks into the room filled with his advisors to hear their appraisal. However, the group immediately start telling Ted how bad an idea it is and Ted storms off yelling, “Screw you guys!”
  • Darkest Hour: The film essentially takes place entirely during this, with Ted having to deal with the blowback from Mary Jo’s accidental death. On a larger basis, this is one in a long string of darkest hours for the Kennedy’s, all stemmed by the former Kennedy brothers’ deaths.
  • Dark Lord on Life Support: After suffering a stroke eight years earlier, Joe Kennedy Sr. is left in a wheelchair with half of his body paralyzed and barely able to speak. That doesn’t stop him from covering up his son’s messes with his political power.
  • Downer Ending: Ted escapes prosecution for Mary Jo’s death and decides he can live with the guilt, alienating his only true friend Joey and preventing him from ascending to the Presidency like his brother did.
  • Drunk Driver: It’s heavily suggested that Ted Kennedy was intoxicated when the car went off the bridge, given the large party he was attending with his staff. This explains why he tries his best to avoid the police for so long, as he doesn’t want to be tested for his alcohol levels.
  • Due to the Dead: Even though his handlers tell him to say Mary Jo was driving to absolve him of any guilt, Ted refuses to do so since it would make Mary Jo look like a reckless drunk who almost killed a senator.
  • Establishing Character Moment: An impressive off-screen example. Ted calls his father (played by Bruce Dern) to explain what's happened. We are told that Joseph Kennedy Sr. has suffered a stroke, so he has trouble speaking and can't be stressed. When Ted tells him that Kopechne is dead, we hear a series of belabored, raspy breathing on the other end of the line. At first it seems as though Mr. Kennedy is overwhelmed by the terrible tragedy that has taken place. But then he manages to say one word:
    Joseph Kennedy: ...Alibi...
  • Evil Cripple: Joe Kennedy Sr. spends the film in a wheelchair, crippled from a stroke years earlier. He also plots the cover up for his son’s accident and repeatedly proclaims his disappointment in him.
  • Face Palm: Almost every time Ted opens his mouth during meetings with Robert McNamara's crisis team, he says/does/admits to something that makes the team collectively groan at how much more difficult he's made their job.
    McNamara: Jesus Christ, Ted!
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anybody that knows about the incident knows Mary Jo will be dead and that Ted Kennedy will suffer few consequences.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Robert McNamara comes across as this, overlapping with Pragmatic Villainy. His only concern is protecting the political standing of Ted, and barely seems to care about Mary Jo Kopechne. He never smiles, never even cracks a light-hearted joke, and will never hesitate to call Ted’s behavior stupid. Considering he is played by Clancy Brown, who has experience playing cold jerkasses, it’s not surprising.
  • Foreshadowing: Two early shots both show the bridge to the beach, and show the turn to the ferry which is in the opposite direction.
  • Heel Realization: Ted has one briefly after Joe points out how dirty the entire cover-up is becoming, and he implores Joe to write his resignation speech as a means of reconciliation. He doesn’t follow through, though.
  • Ignored Epiphany: There are moments when Ted appears to fully realize the horrible tragedy of Jo Kopechne's death, most notably when he calls her parents to deliver the news and can barely hold it together as her mother breaks down over the phone. Another man might take the opportunity to own up to his mistake and try make amends. Ted does not.
    • Similarly, close to the end of the film, Ted tells his father that he realized that his three dead brothers weren’t great because they were Kennedys, but because they were great individuals with their own abilities. Because of this, Ted realizes he doesn’t have to stay Senator and preserve the Kennedy name to become a great man. However, after his father’s rebuttal and his own self-doubts, Ted decides against resigning and continues to propagate his version of the events.
  • Karma Houdini: Had Ted been anyone else, he would’ve gone to jail for vehicular manslaughter and extreme negligence. But because he’s from a powerful political family, he gets off with a slap on the wrist.
  • Lady Macbeth: An odd example, as it’s not Ted’s wife that fills this function. While Ted’s wife is present, it’s clear from her first scene that they’re on bad terms (they divorced several years later). Paula, however, sticks by Ted throughout the film, and encourages him even when it’s shown that Mary Jo’s death was his fault.
  • Last of His Kind: Ted Kennedy is the last of the Kennedy brothers, with the prior three having been killed by war or assassination.
  • Last-Second Chance: Right before Ted’s press conference, Joe gives him his resignation speech. But Ted refuses to read it.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Ted says this verbatim after Joe and Mark are unable to get Mary Jo out of the car.
  • My Greatest Failure: In the ending, Ted refers to the entire incident as this, listing Moses and Judas as great figures who are remembered the one bad thing they did. Joe retorts that for all of Moses’s faults, he “didn’t leave a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea”.
  • Nepotism: Ted pretty much escapes any punishment because of his name and the power his father has.
  • Never My Fault: Ted Kennedy displays traits of this, as he alternates between pitying moments of despair and angry outbursts towards others for not helping him stop the scandal from happening or for letting things get out of hand.
  • Not Helping Your Case: Ted’s handlers point out Ted is doing this by writing his own statement, as it contains major contradictions and wonky facts that could easily be picked apart by a prosecutor.
    • This happens again when Ted wears a neckbrace to Mary Jo’s funeral, as the reporters present can easily tell he’s faking injury by how easily he’s turning his head to look around at the crowd.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted with the name Joe, as the real-life Joe Gargan and Joe Kennedy Sr. made this impossible to avoid. However, Gargan is referred to as "Joey" throughout the picture and Kennedy Sr. is called “Dad” by Ted and “Mr. Kennedy” by his team.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Impressively averted. Despite being Australian, Jason Clarke's imitation of Kennedy's accent is impeccable, neither being too subtle nor falling into Hollywood New England territory.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Joe Kennedy Sr., though wheelchair bound, lived for years after his three sons’ deaths. Averted in Ted’s case, who lived almost fifty years past him.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: How Ted (and, to be fair, the American public at large) views himself in comparison to his brothers: John F. Kennedy was the president, the glittering symbol who became a mythologized figure in the wake of his tragic assassination. Robert F. Kennedy carved out his own niche as a hardass Attorney General, who dared people to dream and could inspire people (and may very well have won the Presidency in 1968 if he hadn't been assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan). Ted...doesn't have the charm of John nor the passionate idealism of Robert. And it's clear that he's tormented by that reality.
  • The Power of Legacy: The film explores this trope, regarding Ted's connection to his family (and more importantly his brothers). Everything, even Ted's attempts to do the right thing, gets swallowed up by the ultimate reality: He is a Kennedy, and Kennedys stay in politics...
  • Precision F-Strike: As they are driving to Mary Jo Kopechne's funeral, Ted's wife very clearly makes her opinion of the whole matter known in a single line (her only line, at that!)
    Joan Kennedy: Go fuck yourself, Teddy.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Some might find Ted’s car crash happening right in the middle of the Apollo 11 mission too much of a Contrived Coincidence to be believable, but that is actually what happened.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Despite having speech hindered from a stroke, Joe Kennedy Sr. gives one to Ted in response to Ted’s decision to resign from the Senate.
    Joe Kennedy Sr.: You will…never be great.
  • Redemption Rejection: By the film’s end, Ted has a chance to receive some kind of self-inflicted justice by resigning from his Senate seat. However, he decides he can live with killing Mary Jo and stays the course with the manipulated story he’s concocted.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Over the course of the film, Joey becomes increasingly appalled over the fact that Ted cares more about his political future than the woman who died in his car. This eventually leads to Joey resigning as Ted's personal attorney and cutting all ties with the Kennedy family.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Ted Kennedy largely avoids any legal trouble from the accident through his and his father’s influence, which stretches as high as the Massachusetts Attorney General.
  • Skewed Priorities: Done intentionally with Ted's first line after making it back to the beach house from the crash, to show how he's been taught to forward and uphold the Kennedy family legacy above all else.
    Ted: I'm not going to be President.
  • Spotting the Thread: To alleviate suspicions, Ted’s handlers tell the New York Times editor that Ted suffered a concussion and that his doctor prescribed him sedatives for treatment. The editor quickly points out that concussions are one of the conditions one never gives a patient sedatives for, something even a small town doctor would know. This quickly lets him on that there’s a bigger story brewing than Ted is letting on.
  • Surprise Car Crash: The whole plot is started off by one, with Ted driving his car off a bridge and abandoning Mary Jo in the upturned vehicle.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Played with. Ted Kennedy thinks that the crisis team (helmed by Robert McNamara) is leading him to ruin. Meanwhile, the crisis team thinks that Ted is the incompetent one, who simply makes their job that much harder.
  • Token Good Teammate: Joe Gargan is this for Ted’s team, being the only one who has any problems with the constant manipulation of truth and cover-ups. It’s no surprise that he breaks off his relationship with Ted after the latter’s Moral Event Horizon.
  • Tragic Villain: All Ted Kennedy wanted to be was an inspiration to America and to make her a better place to be. Too bad his poor judgment led to a woman being killed and him covering up his fault in the crash in the name of the greater good.
  • Trapped in a Sinking Car: Mary Jo’s death happens because of this, with the added detriments of the car being upside down and the water slowly suffocating her.
  • The Unfavorite: Ted Kennedy was always this for Joe Kennedy Sr., who preferred Jack and Bobby as the next generation.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Part of what makes the story compelling (both In-Universe and in real life) is the fact that we don't actually know how much of an effort Ted put into saving Mary Jo's life. While Ted gives a televised interview explaining his version of the events, the movie makes it clear that Ted is at least partially lying to cover his tracks.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Ted becomes this by the film’s ending, portraying himself as an apologetic guy who made a simple mistake. Said mistake cost a woman her life and would’ve gotten anybody else a much harsher punishment.
  • Warts and All: Heavily deconstructed with Ted’s press conference. While Ted admits his fault in the crash, he deliberately manipulates facts and perception to make himself look better than he actually was (saying he tried to valiantly save Mary Jo when he actually just fled the scene and made his friends do it, swimming all the way back to the mainland by himself when his friends actually just rowed him to shore). After all, if he told the whole truth, there’s a good chance the people of Massachusetts would throw him out of office.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: In a mild version of Calling the Old Man Out, Ted confesses his whole career was driven by this.
    Ted:: Dad, did you know I never wanted to be president? Does it even matter to you? I wanted to make you proud. That's all I've ever wanted. I spent my whole life chasing your dreams for you, just like Joe and just like Jack and just like Bobby, and look what happened to them. They were great men, but they weren't great because of who you were. They were great because of who they were.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Joey abandons Ted and the rest of the Kennedys when he realizes just what they’re willing to do to stay in power. The credits further clarify that he remains estranged from the family to this day (he died later in 2017).
  • What You Are in the Dark:
    • Towards the end of the film, as Kennedy prepares to read a speech prepared by Robert McNamara's team that will obfuscate the entire tragedy, admit to a (jaundiced) account of the night's events and, most importantly, appeal to the American people about whether Ted Kennedy should keep officenote , Joey Gargan approaches Ted with another speech that the latter had asked the former to work on: one of resignation, where Kennedy admits to the wrongdoing but also steps down from his Senate seat, citing it as the right and moral thing to do. In the last few moments before the cameras go live, Ted and Joey discuss which of the speeches to read, with Gargan desperately pleading to his friend Ted to do the right thing. Ted chooses to read the other speech.
    • And of course there's the first example. Ted Kennedy walks away with a woman trapped in his car, rather than finding the nearest phone and calling the police. Then after his buddies can't rescue her, he goes back to his hotel room and goes to bed.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Ted tries to pull this at Mary Jo’s funeral, wearing a neck brace despite having no neck injury. Subverted when his handlers point out how stupid the idea is and the reporters present at the funeral immediately see through the act.
  • Yes-Man: Paul F. Markham, played by Jim Gaffigan. A family friend of the Kennedys, he is also the one who most directly helps Ted with his version of events, leaving Gargan exasperated.
    • More troubling is the fact that he is a US Attorney, thus someone who wields a considerable degree of legal clout in the area, and the movie makes it very clear that he is involved in a degree of the cover-up surrounding Chappaquiddick.