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Film / Chappaquiddick

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Chappaquiddick is a 2017 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 in January by becoming the youngest majority whip in US 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 was released on April 6, 2018.

Chappaquiddick contains examples of:

  • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • "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.
  • 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...
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 was not 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.
  • Overshadowed by Controversy: Ted Kennedy is considered one of the heroes of modern American liberalism, and is one of the longest-serving senators in US history. He also never fully recovered his reputation from Chappaquiddick. If the movie's thesis is any indication, he entirely deserved that overshadowing.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • "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.
  • 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.
  • The Woobie: Ted thinks’ he’s this, but the film makes it clear that Joey Gargan is the real sympathetic character (aside from Mary Jo Kopechne who, you know, lost her life) the audience should root for.
  • 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.

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