“Chappaquiddick” originally premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures)
“Chappaquiddick” had the potential to be a great, if not superb, historical drama, but it fails to transcend averageness due to a feeling of underdevelopment.
Based on the true story of the Chappaquiddick Incident in which Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) accidentally drove his car off of a bridge, resulting in the death of campaign staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (Kata Mara), “Chappaquiddick” details the events leading up to and the cover-up that followed the tragic accident.
“Chappaquiddick” had potential to be a great historical drama because of its figure and its event. Ted Kennedy is an interesting historical figure, the Chappaquiddick incident is an interesting event and cover-up in American politics, and neither one have been explored on the big screen before. Though as it is stated above, both of these events feel underdeveloped.
The one area where “Chappaquiddick” manages to transcend and surprise is with the performances. Clarke (“Everest”) and Mara (“House of Cards”) are both usually good actors if given material that they can work with, and both manage to do a good job in the movie. Clarke even manages to incorporate Ted Kennedy’s trademark grin without it coming across as too much. The two biggest surprises of the movie, though, are standup comedian Jim Gaffigan as former Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Paul F. Markham, and Ed Helms, best known as Andy on “The Office,” as Kennedy cousin Joe Gargan.
While Clarke is good in the role of Ted Kennedy, he is not great due to how the character is written. The movie is written in a way that allows Clarke to show off his acting skills, but Kennedy’s character is written in an inconsistent way that makes it hard for him to ever become the character.
Kennedy is portrayed as someone who is not only living to please his ailing father (Bruce Dern), but is also living in the shadow of three brothers who were beloved and respected in their lifetimes. This gives the impression that Kennedy is supposed to be some sort of tragic figure, but he seems to fluctuate throughout the movie between doing the right thing and lying without strong reason given from the movie for him to do so. Then, at the end of the movie, Kennedy is portrayed as, for lack of a better word, a jerk when this had not been the case throughout the rest of the movie.
In terms of the focus on the Chappaquiddick incident itself, the underdeveloped nature of it does not come from what feels like an unexplained fluctuation of things like it does with Kennedy’s character, but due to a lack of focus on it.
Most of the Chappaquiddick incident is focused on through Kennedy and his father’s men trying to stage a coverup of it. There are brief moments throughout the movie following the accident where aspects outside of Kennedy’s team’s involvement are shown, but these are all brief. Focusing on the Kennedy side of the incident would be alright had the character been consistent, but since he was not the movie’s focus on the event feels a bit weak.
The movie also seems confused as to what it wants the audience to feel about Kennedy. So much of the movie feels like it is trying to convey that Kennedy was a well-meaning but ultimately flawed man whose legacy has a very dark stain attributed to it. On the other hand, the last scene of the movie shows Kennedy in a way the rest of the movie did not, as someone who did not do the ‘right thing,’ as Gargan says in the movie. This contradiction of ideas does not feel like it is an intentional thing by the filmmakers as a way to ask the audience to make up their own minds about Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident, but rather that it was a filmmaking mistake that muddles up the purpose of the film.
“Chappaquiddick” had a lot to offer, but delivered on very little. It was well made and acted, but the ideas and focus of the movie are muddled and should have been developed further.
Final Grade: C+