We’re often told that the 2016 election produced a new era of American politics, that President Donald Trump’s campaign broke all the rules of decency in its quest for power. Whether that means supposedly colluding with the Russian government to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, or spreading lies about her personal life, Trump’s critics tell us that his behavior was so unprecedented that his very existence represents a fundamental threat to The Republic.
Enter the Kennedy clan, a dynasty so wrapped in success, epic disappointment, and tragedy that until very recently, has only been given the most hagiographical treatment. Even today, despite all books and articles written about Jackie and Bobby’s sordid behavior, plenty of individuals of age in that era show no regret in who they voted for in 1960 — and would happily do it all over again.
Thus in many ways, John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick” is a subversive work that challenges America’s conception of its 20th century royal family. In our tabloid-news era of adult star sex scandals and adultery, Ted Kennedy’s saga plays in perfectly.
Played by Australia’s Jason Clarke, viewers can feel a magnetic attraction to his handsome facade, rough Bostonian accent, and general privilege as the movie begins with a lovely regatta on Martha’s Vineyard. As much as you want to resist the urge, you can see how he got away from the entire incident.
During the after party, the filmmakers make the tension between Teddy and his late brother’s former secretary Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) abundantly clear without making it plainly obvious what the extent of any affair they allegedly had, a careful step not to fully embrace any conspiracies around the tragic crash.
As Teddy and Mary Jo leave, viewers can’t help but remember anti-drunk driving PSAs and warnings from MAAD — and this trip ends no differently.
We never find out (or understand) how Teddy managed to escape the car, while Mary Jo was left to die in a position that made it painfully clear she was trying to escape until her last breath.
Instead, we discover the true soul of the Kennedys. When Ted returns to the house where the aforementioned party takes place — and leaves Mary Jo’s body in the car –the first words out of his mouth are, “We’ve got a problem, I’m not going to be president.”
Many already know what happens next. Teddy doesn’t report the crime for another 10 hours, while he, his cousin Joe (Ed Helms), and the Massachusetts Attorney General Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) implore him to go to the cops as soon as they get the news.
After Teddy fesses up, the movie transforms into a comedy of sort. The full brunt of the Kennedy Cult, ranging from various lawyers, politicos, hacks, and the press, come out in full defense of the family brand.
The film leaves no doubt that Ted, without his vast network of money and sycophants, would have faced manslaughter charges.
If there’s one lesson from the film, it’s this: If it feels like Trump gets away with everything, he never got away with murder.