Rob Edelman: Chappaquiddick

Apr 2, 2018

These days, the Kennedy clan is much in the media. Most recently, CNN broadcast AMERICAN DYNASTIES: THE KENNEDYS, which includes “rare family moments from the White House.” However, when have John, Robert, and Jacqueline Kennedy not been the subjects of endless films and TV programs? And now, a new biopic, appropriately titled CHAPPAQUIDDICK, puts forth a certain point of view about Edward Kennedy, the youngest Kennedy brother.

Unfortunately, CHAPPAQUIDDICK is in its worst moments simplistic and unintentionally laughable, and this despite the seriousness and catastrophic elements of its story line. Of course, Teddy Kennedy, the longtime Massachusetts senator, might have eventually become the U.S. president, but any chance of this vanished permanently on the night of July 18, 1969 when Teddy was involved in a single-vehicle car mishap on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. He was the driver. Mary Jo Kopechne, his young passenger, was trapped in the vehicle, and Teddy’s carelessness in the moments and hours following the accident directly resulted in Kopechne’s death. He made no effort to save her, and he did not report the mishap for ten hours. Back in the day, of course, this was a major news event.

In CHAPPAQUIDDICK, Teddy-- who is played by Jason Clarke-- is negatively compared to his older siblings even before the accident. For indeed, at the start of the film, an interviewer asks Teddy, “What’s it like walking in the shadow of your deceased brothers?” The onscreen Teddy is presented as the Kennedy son who knows all-too-well that he lacks his brothers’ charm, brilliance, and potential. However, he is the only one who is living and so, in the film, there still is talk among the press that, come 1972, Teddy surely will be the next U.S. president. But just around the time in which an astronaut steps foot on the moon, fulfilling JFK’s promise, his kid brother’s life and future disintegrated in a flash. And in the film, the accident and Teddy’s behavior in its aftermath are dutifully charted. Onscreen, he and Mary Jo are not shown to be sexually involved but, still, in the wake of the crash, Teddy is shown to act erratically. Why is this? It might be for any number of reasons, but the bottom line is that Teddy Kennedy is presented here as an insecure jerk, a human being who is drowning in weakness.

At its most revealing, CHAPPAQUIDDICK has Teddy mixing with his elderly less-than-solicitous father, played by Bruce Dern. However, given his name and fame, Teddy’s behavior does not result in a court date. He does not end up in jail. His actions may directly lead to the death of an innocent young woman but, after all, he is a Kennedy! So his name and background allow him an excuse for his conduct.

While watching CHAPPAQUIDDICK, I only could ask myself: Why is this story being told now? This film could have been made any time in the past 40-plus years. So why now...? Is this story meant to soothe the egos of Trump supporters by reminding them that celebrated liberal Democrats also have skeletons hidden deeply in their closets? A Trump devotee might observe, “Ah, those Democrats. They’re a bunch of losers, creeps, criminals. For after all, take a look at Edward Kennedy and Chappaquiddick!” Cinematically, CHAPPAQUIDDICK is nothing more than a one-dimensional, by-the-numbers retelling. However, while watching it, the questions and issues surrounding its production remain ever present...

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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