During the weekend of July 20, 1969, two events happened that changed the course of history. The most famous is the landing of Apollo 11 and the first steps ever taken by humans on the moon. Less remembered now but still consequential is then-Sen. Ted Kennedy driving his car off a bridge late at night while crossing from Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. While Kennedy survived the accident, his lone passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, did not. Kennedy, a married senator from the closest thing 20th-century America had to a royal family, waited to even report the crash for hours. By then, Kopechne had drowned. She was 28.
Kennedy was expected to become president, following his late older brother John. The incident at Chappaquiddick forever changed that. As his character, ably played by Jason Clarke, realizes early in the cover-up, “I will never be president.”
Late on the night of July 18, 1969, a black Oldsmobile driven by U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy plunged off the Dike Bridge on the tiny island of Chappaquiddick, off Martha’s Vineyard, landing upside down in the tidal Poucha Pond. The 37-year-old Kennedy survived the crash, but the young woman riding with him in the car didn’t. Though newspaper headlines at the time identified her simply as a “blonde,” she was 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a respected political operative who had worked on the presidential campaign of Senator Kennedy’s brother, Robert Kennedy.
Kennedy later claimed he dove repeatedly “into the strong and murky current” to try and find Kopechne before making his way back to the cottage. He then drove back to the scene with his cousin, Joseph Gargan, and aide Paul Markham, who both tried in vain to reach Kopechne. But rather than report the accident to the police at that time, Kennedy returned to his hotel in Edgartown. As a result, Mary Jo Kopechne remained underwater for some nine hours until her body was recovered the next morning.
Ted Kennedy could have faced negligent homicide or even murder charges. But as the film shows, his cover-up managed to keep him out of prison and in the United States Senate. That was a seat from which he wreaked havoc and partisanship on the United States for decades. Among other things, Kennedy poisoned the Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation process in the 1980s, despicable actions which divided the nation at the time and continue to divide us now.
Chappaquiddick tells the story of that fateful weekend and the ensuing campaign to salvage Ted Kennedy in a thorough, workman-like manner. It focuses first on the drinking at a party prior to the crash, then the crash and its aftermath. The Kennedy clan resembles a modern take on the Humpty Dumpty fairy tale, with all the future king’s men trying to put his political prospects back together — because they want the power that would come with his — without seeming to care at all that a young woman lost her life. Kennedy’s attempt to turn himself into a victim doesn’t play well.
Chappaquiddick is a movie about privilege — wealth and mainly Democrat privilege. No Republican would have survived what Kennedy did. His political career should not have survived his failure to even try to save Kopechne. But through a combination of the Kennedy name, spin, officials willing to look the other way, and a pliant media, he did. It’s maddening, but worth a watch before Chappaquiddick leaves Netflix on March 31. After that, it’s still available for rent or purchase elsewhere.
Kata Mara, Ed Helms, and a barely recognizable Jim Gaffigan round out the cast.