As films go, there’s nothing particularly distinctive about this one. It’s a historical drama, insofar as an event that is not yet 50 years old is history. It’s dramatic because the events it portrays are dramatic. It’s a straightforward story, told without embellishment, and as I overheard one lady say to another as we left the theater, “It didn’t make me like him [Ted Kennedy] any better.”
Chappaquiddick is light on the events leading up to the fateful night of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death. Aside from a short conversation with Ted Kennedy, in which it is revealed that she worked as a secretary for Robert Kennedy, and another comment made about her work on a small mayoral campaign, her relation to (and relationship with?) Ted Kennedy is left up to the viewer’s prior knowledge or imagination.
The actual events of Chappaquiddick happen quickly, early on in the film. The party at the Chappaquiddick cabin, comprised of what in hindsight seems like an odd assortment of people—married political figures, the youngest of whom was late 30’s, and a collection of single girls all 28 or under—with plenty of booze to go around. For reasons unknown in history and equally unclear in the film, Kennedy and Mary Jo leave together, fatefully turning right toward the bridge instead of left toward the ferry landing.
Where the film did shine was in its murky portrayal of the actual accident. Kennedy looks at Mary Jo, Mary Jo looks at Kennedy, her mouth opens in a scream. Kennedy smiles (if I recall correctly), the shot moves from inside the car to outside, and the last we as the audience see is the vehicle flipping over the low side of the bridge. Next thing we know, a dripping wet Kennedy is sitting on the shore as the car slips beneath the surface.
Kennedy treks back to the house and enlists the help of his cousin—Joe Gargan—and the Massachusetts attorney general, Paul Markham. Together they drive back to the site, where both Gargan and Markham dive into the water in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue Kopechne, while Kennedy looks on. The three paddle across the water to the town of Edgartown, where Gargan and Markham implore Kennedy to report the incident to the police before leaving him to check into a room at the hotel. After several hours, Kennedy calls his father, who is in poor health and barely able to say anything more than a single word: “alibi.” Kennedy slips back out of the hotel, ensuring that a man who’d stepped outside for a smoke sees him.
The next morning, a boy and his father arrive at the bridge, fishing gear in tow. The boy notices the overturned vehicle, then runs to call the police. Upon arriving at the scene, the police chief dives into the water, but ultimately must wait until a diver from the fire department arrives on the scene to recover the body. The diver pulls the body from the car and remarks to the chief how, had he known of the accident when it occurred, he would have been able to pull out the body in fifteen minutes—the implication being that Mary Jo may not have died had the authorities been notified immediately.
It’s at this point that Gargan and Markham confront Kennedy about his negligence in reporting the incident, and Kennedy and Markham camp out in the police chief’s office until he returns, drafting a written statement. Soon after, Kennedy returns to the Kennedy compound, where his father has assembled quite a team of lawyers and political tacticians.
It’s all damage control from here. The best and brightest try to control the manner in which the story is leaked, fate seems to be working against them. Inconsistencies in Kennedy’s written statement abound, but are discovered only after it’s been read to the press. It’s not until someone realizes that Apollo 11 is scheduled to land on the moon the same weekend that the team catches a break. Gargan drafts a resignation speech for Kennedy, but instead of resigning, Kennedy paints himself as a victim, garnering public sympathy. Ultimately, Kennedy pleads guilty to walking away from the scene, is given a suspended sentence, and spends the next 40 years in the Senate, his dreams of the presidency shattered.
Perhaps it was all an accident. A dirt road, a wooden bridge without guardrails, alcohol in the system—it’s entirely plausible. A career politician who had to know the optics of the situation didn’t look good, and panicked rather than report the truth to the police immediately.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t. Murder is equally plausible, though motive remains unclear.
What really happened that night at Chappaquiddick, only two people know. One perished in the water, and the other took the truth to his grave.
The fact that Chappaquiddick didn’t attempt to answer any questions, clear up any inconsistencies, provide explanation, or even hypothesize about the possibilities made it slightly more than just average. There’s no resolution for the viewer, no tying up of loose ends. In a day and age where everything is politicized and editorialized, it was refreshing—almost jarring—to just get the facts. There’s plenty of room as the credits roll for the viewer to play judge and jury.