Cinema Review: Chappaquiddick

In its own bloodless way, this is a horror movie. Not that it will make your hair stand on end with gore and suspense – the horror of this true story lies in how wealth and privilege and a sense of entitlement can override common, law-abiding decency. In July 1969, while the world was watching the Apollo 11 mission put a man on the Moon, Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy, after leaving a party, drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick island. His young passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, died in the submerged vehicle. Kennedy fled and did not report the incident until nine hours later, by which time the PR machine that would do all it could to soften the blow to his public standing had been set in train. Beforehand, I feared that director John Curran might whitewash Kennedy’s actions and present him as a great guy who merely made a foolish error of judgment. Not so. The Senator from Massachusetts, as portrayed by Jason Clarke, is, if not quite a dimwit, certainly not the sharpest tool in the shed. Intimidated by his wheelchair-bound father, the carpetbagger Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern), and living in the shadow of his revered, assassinated brothers Jack and Bobby, Teddy’s first instinct is to look after number one and he lies shamelessly to all who question him. His close friend and ‘go-to’ man, cousin Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), is dismayed by Teddy’s unwillingness to own-up to his moral responsibilities. To Curran’s credit, he has no interest in cashing in on the more salacious line that there may have been a sexual relationship between Teddy and Mary Jo, instead he shines a laser beam on the way that those with money and influence can exploit the lustre of a name to manipulate the media – and get away with it. It’s about caste and class and how pampered men believe that they are above the concept of right and wrong. Both Clarke and Helms give persuasive, multi-faceted performances. A must see.

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