Stories about Ted Kennedy, a.k.a. "The Lion of the Senate," tend to focus on the man's achievements and his suffering. Typical of the way he's usually described is his New York Times obituary, which calls him "a man who knew acclaim and tragedy in near-equal measure and who will be remembered as one of the most effective lawmakers in the history of the Senate." If you know about Chappaquiddick, you recognize that the word "tragedy" is drooping under the heavy work being asked of it: "tragedy" conflates things that happened to Ted Kennedy, including the untimely deaths of his brothers, with the untimely death of Mary Jo Kopechne (an aide to his brother Robert) that Teddy directly caused.
This is what we tend to do for Great Men: rescript their lives so that their awful actions coexist with their misfortunes. And then admire them for surviving these suitably euphemized "tragedies."
What appears to have happened in Chappaquiddick in 1969 is this: Teddy Kennedy drove himself and a 28-year-old woman off a bridge, escaped the car himself, and left her to die. While he didn't report the accident or seek help, he did make over a dozen phone calls, evidently trying to figure out how to manage this latest insult to his political career.
What's striking about Chappaquiddick — John Curran's movie about the week of these events — is how quickly its stodgy period conventions start subverting the way these sorts of scandals are usually framed. These Great Man Tragedies tend to have trouble side-stepping their tragic heroes. Because the plot is pinned to them, the moral questions around their bad behavior — the implied "was it worth it?" — frequently collapses quietly into an aesthetic rationalization. The answer tends to be "Yes, otherwise this movie wouldn't exist."
The risk Chappaquiddick takes is twofold: It replies "no" to this question, but without rejecting the form that requires a "yes." Teddy (played by Jason Clarke) is not a Great Man. The movie argues this simply, sympathetically, and conclusively — through the unlikely but brilliant use of Ed Helms as Teddy's cousin and confidant Joe Gargan. If it feels slightly unfocused as a result, it's because this film, which is not about a great man, also turns out not to be a tragedy: Teddy's future (at least by the movie's lights) is comparatively bright. And built on amazingly ugly compromises.
When it comes to Great Man Tragedies in America, the Kennedy legend is basically the ur-text. Chappaquiddick begins, accordingly, with a rather conventional series of radio excerpts and clips to establish that we're in 1969, with only one Kennedy brother left: It's Teddy, and he's speaking prettily to the camera about Jack, the brother he'll never live up to. Then the film cuts to beautiful two women tanning on a beach. One's a brunette, one's a blonde, and everything about this scene — the period markers, their conspiratorial air, even the dialogue — is so recognizable, so downright archetypal, that we know instantly that they're gossiping about boys. They aren't. Well, they are, but not in the way we think. These, it turns out, are two of the "Boiler Room Girls" who helped run Robert Kennedy's campaign, and one (the brunette) is trying to convince the other (the blonde) to rejoin politics by working with Robert's less worthy brother, Teddy.
The blonde is Mary Jo Kopechne, played by Kate Mara. She observes, sadly, that working for Bobby Kennedy really felt like public service. And her affect — when Teddy shows up at the beach to ask her to join him — is notable both for how believably human it is and for how it skirts the obvious reading. Mara makes Kopechne unforgettable in the few minutes she has. When Teddy arrives, Kopechne doesn't become a sex kitten, or flirt, or do any of the things we expect gorgeous blondes in swimsuits to do. The vibe is more familial than electric and nicely establishes the Kennedy circle as clannish and inclusive (to a point). Kopechne speaks frankly about her feelings: the assassination got to her. She's reluctant to return. She really couldn't take another presidential campaign. Teddy, hinting at his inner demons and at what's literally to come, says she may not have to.
The film's first act also establishes another invisible boundary that the Kennedys draw and blur at will: Joe Gargan (played by Ed Helms) is Teddy's cousin. Sometimes referred to as Teddy's brother, other times as his lawyer, other times as his friend, the relationship shifts depending on what Teddy needs from Joe in the moment. Helms plays Gargan as an older, concerned hanger-on. He's lonely and wants badly to belong, but is generally immune to the strain of corruption that afflicts Teddy and his father.
These are interesting and surprisingly well-developed social architectures.
Everyone knows what happens next. There's a party. Six of the Boiler Room girls are present. There's drinking. Teddy takes Mary Jo for an unexplained drive. He loses control, the car flies off a bridge and ends up upside-down in the water. Teddy escapes. Mary Jo does not.
There are a few different ways you could depict this, the movie's central event. Curran chooses to have Teddy's first words be "I'm never going to be president." He shows him abandon the scene, flail, call people, return to the party, go to his hotel, etc. (Clarke, to his credit, plays these scenes with a convincing mix of panic and pragmatism.) It seems clear at this point that we've fully entered the Great Man Tragedy. But then — long after we think we've witnessed Mary Jo's death — it shows her panicked and breathing desperately out of a small pocket of air inside the car. It evidently took Mary Jo hours to die. (A scuba diver said he likely could have saved her if anyone had called for help.)
The film is unambiguous: Director of Photography Maryse Alberti is relentless in her depiction of Mary Jo's agony, and Curran juxtaposes those scenes with Teddy's panic over his career.
And yet Chappaquiddick is actually quite sympathetic to Teddy's plight. It carefully portrays the pressures he's under and how conflicted he feels about his approach even as it also shows him choosing the easy way out, time and time again. But even when the movie comes closest to aligning itself utterly with Teddy's frantic point of view, it calls out its own narrative temptations. Joe Gargan, the only man less welcome in the Kennedy family than Ted himself, plays the film's conscience. "You're not a victim, Ted!" he says when he stumbles on Ted trying on a neck brace to wear to Mary Jo's funeral. The audience is suitably chastised. "A girl dies, and somehow Ted is the martyr?" he says later, when a team of fixers is trying to mastermind Ted's political prospects.
Every time audience amnesia threatens to make the hero too charming, the monstrosity of the enterprise is driven home again. This is a movie about how the children of privilege manage to get away with terrible things despite making incredibly stupid mistakes. And if it seems at times like an invitation to make comparisons to the present, those quickly collapse, since it's impossible to imagine a Trump, say, agonizing over whether he's done the right thing. Or having this kind of conversation with a family member:
Teddy, trying to convince Joe that a massaged speech could work better than his resignation, says, "This may give me a chance at a new beginning."
"This isn't about opportunity, it's about integrity," Joe says.
"Joey you have flaws. We all do, you said so yourself. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. I have Chappaquiddick."
"Yeah," Joe says. "Moses had a temper. But he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea."
We need more movies like this: Films that revisit "legends" of the past and interrogate the ugly blind spots that allowed America to not see what was happening and hail as Great Men people who deserved to be remembered quite differently. Fortunately, Paterno is premiering this week too.