2018-06-01 06:11


Based on a true story, it is July 1969 and Ted Kennedy finds himself in the shadow of his two more famous, murdered brothers, John and Robert, but just as his own political career is about to take off and the road the White House is finally in view, tragedy strikes that threatens to undermine everything he worked for. Driving drunk after a party in the family's summer home on Chappaquiddick Island with Mary Jo Kapechne, one of the Kennedy clan's “Boiler Room Girls”, he drives his car off a bridge into a deep pond: he gets out alive, she does not. With an overbearing father on one side and his cousin and voice of moral conscience, Joe Gargan, on the other, Kennedy is stuck between doing the right thing and confessing to his crime or saving his burgeoning political career by covering it up.


With the circus that is current American politics, Chappaquiddick is a reminder of sorts that, regardless of the side of the isle or the time and place, politics can be a very dirty business indeed. Or, more precisely  politicians all too often allow their quest for power to get in the way of doing right by those they're supposedly supposed to be serving. The dark beauty of the story being told here is that it's very small and very self-contained but the personal, intimate nature of these events gives this age-old morality tale a more personal and intimate flavour than the sort we usually find in politically-driven dramas.  

What might be most interesting about the film, though, is the peek into the Kennedy clan themselves. Here is an American family that have often been called he closest thing the United States has to a Royal Family but while that's usually meant as a compliment, Chappaquiddick shows a much uglier side to that comparison. Like royalty, the Kennedys were all about keeping  as much power as possible within their single aristocratic family and like royalty, this family had their own internal strife, full of backstabbing and simmering jealousy. 

That Ted Kennedy lived in the shadow of his two more famous, martyred brothers in the public eye may have played heavily on his both his ambition and his deep insecurities but that was nothing in comparison to the sheer disdain that his father, Joseph, had for him. By all indications, Joseph Kennedy was a fairly monstrous figure in many respects and he is presented here – as played by the always great and almost unrecognisable Bruce Dern - as nothing less than a full-on, sinister villain who undermines the better angels of his children at every turn. Ted's desperate need to please his father is presented as his ultimate downfall – at least morally if not politically. 

It's an interesting story and an interesting peak into one of the USA's most famous families with a very strong cast, including stand out performances from Olivia Thirlby, Ed Helms and Jason Clarke on convincing but subtle form as Ted Kennedy himself. It's also a story that is compelling by its very nature – especially for anyone with an interest in American politics, especially its darker aspects – and one that deserved to be told. 

What it is not, however, is a particularly dramatically engaging film. Considering the nature of the story and the fact that the film isn't afraid to be polemical and critical of its subjects, it comes off as surprisingly dry. Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan's script is solid enough and John Curran - a director who has been around for a couple of decades but whose filmography is fairly small if not without some interest - shows a sure hand here but there's a workman-like blandness to both the writing and direction that undermines the emotional punch of the film.   

More's the pity because with just a bit more wit, a bit more bile and a bit more visual zip, Chappaquiddick could have been a real standout. As it is, it's a somewhat unmemorable, somewhat tepid telling of a compelling and interesting story. It's well worth seeing, regardless of your political affiliations, though – you just won't lose much by waiting for it to hit the small screen in a few months. Who knows, it's close enough to a TV movie that it might even be better served by seeing it that way.

Read more on:    ed helms  |  movie review

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