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Review: Chappaquiddick and the Tyranny of Small Powerful Men

At this point in history, the legend of Chappaquiddick is so ingrained in the texture of this country’s political infamy, a telling of the events might seem unnecessary. Although it’s strange to think that such a significant event happened nearly 50 years ago, and this is the first dramatization of the story. There has been no other film – in theaters or on TV – nor even a play giving an account of the happening.

Which is fairly remarkable. The Kennedys have always fascinated the public, and the abundant tragedy attached to the family is ripe for artistic interpretation. Maybe it’s because after John and Bobby, Teddy was merely the other brother to most people. The boy who lived, but was no one’s first choice. Including his father’s.

Because of their untimely deaths, John and Bobby got to be legends – their flaws shuffled to the side and their aspirations seen as certainty, had only they lived.

Teddy survived his one close call with an untimely death. However, the passenger in the car he drove off a bridge, into water, which resulted in her drowning did not.

Her name was Mary Jo Kopechne. A former secretary on Bobby’s campaign who is portrayed here (and well by Kate Mara) as a woman unsure of her next steps. She believed in her candidate to such a degree, her heart could no longer take Washington, and at the time of her passing, she was working in local politics in New Jersey.

The only reason she was on the island of Chappaquiddick was for a party that intended to remember Bobby and point Teddy to the future. The remaining brother attempts to convince her to work for him, but she isn’t ready for such an undertaking after the assassination of her former boss.

The movie depicts Teddy and Mary Jo as warm and friendly towards each other. After all, they adored Bobby in a similar fashion.

Drinks are had. Maybe too many. They leave the party together, stop off in a field for some reminiscing, return to the car, and the next thing you know she’s underwater and he’s on land.

Was Teddy drunk? Careless? Both? The movie seems to go with option three. Mary Jo’s terrible end is mostly told in flashback, and it’s suitably horrifying. Trapped in an upside down flooding car, calling out for Teddy, saying prayers as the water creeps above her chin. The poor woman died in about ten feet of water. Such was the shallow nature of the body she was submerged in.

What remains mysterious is how Teddy escaped the vehicle, and how Mary Jo was unable to do the same. Teddy is shown attempting to save her. Something he declared he did, but of course there is no way to really know.

Up until this point, what has happened is terrible, but not nefarious. What happened next is much darker.

Kennedy walks back to the party. Asks for his cousin Joe (played ably by Ed Helms as the moral center of the film), who brings along college chum and Massachusetts US attorney Paul Markham. They go back to the site of the crash. The two jump in the water hoping against hope, but to no avail.

Joe tells Teddy he needs to report the accident at once. Teddy says he will. He doesn’t. He goes to his hotel. Takes a bath. Puts on his pajamas and goes to sleep. The next morning he joins some friends for brunch. In the interim, the vehicle is discovered.

Why did Kennedy not report the incident? The movie posits that he was partially in a state of shock, but more than anything, looking for a way out.

Which is of course, horrendous and cowardly behavior. The movie takes care not to make him a monster though. A smart decision, I think. And as played by the excellent veteran character actor Jason Clarke, he is not evil, but weak. A man who stood in two very long shadows made by martyrs, who knows he’s not up to their merit, and sadly, tragically, proves it in a moment of atrocious indecision.

To make matters worse, after the story gets out, he with the help of his father Joe (Bruce Dern, in a nearly wordless, but stridently effective performance) circles the wagons by filling up a room with powerful white men who proceed to pull on every string to save Teddy’s political career. If you ever wondered what a roomful of soulless, myopic fixers looks like, this movie has got you covered.The tyranny of small, powerful men is a frightening mix of casual amorality and ruthless backroom machinations.

For the most part, they are successful. Teddy pleads to leaving the scene of the accident, receives a suspended sentence, and one year of probation.

Kennedy went on to become the 4th longest-serving senator in this nation’s history. He was a part of crafting enormously significant legislation. Most of which truly did make this country a better place.

Which makes one’s efforts to sort out their own feelings about Chappaquiddick pretty damn complicated. Did Teddy redeem himself with his extraordinarily productive career? Is that even possible? And with the only tangible consequence of the incident being that it may have put a ceiling on his political aspirations, is it immoral to even suggest he could, considering the small price he paid?

Thorny questions to be sure. Quite likely where you fall on the political spectrum will color your opinion.

Despite how well this event has been documented, the movie is forced to do a fair amount of supposing. Only two people were in that car. One died that night, and the one that didn’t is most certainly an unreliable narrator.

The movie tackles these challenges in a sober, even-handed manner. Chappaquiddick is more somber than vibrant. The choices director John Curran makes are muted, as opposed to sensational.

Which may be just right. Chappaquiddick is a strong, solid film about the moral flexibility of one of the most significant human beings in the young history of America.

Where it reached me most is in that sizable sitting room. Where these men of ill-repute wave their hands, make a few calls, and change the color of the sky. Just because they can.

However cold the case of Chappaquiddick may be, that horrific flexing of muscles still goes on today. We need only look at the current resident of the White House – a man all the Kennedys would have despised, without necessarily recognizing the irony of their opinion – to see that modern times are no different. In fact, they are even worse. Now it takes place in the daylight and the night. The hubris of the current administration is as much in your face as it is clandestine.

Same as it ever was, only harder. Bigly.