It’s tough examining tawdry historical political scandal in the Trump era, much like how modern scepticism about the honesty of governments robbed The Post of some of its impact. Throwing House of Cards alum Kate Mara into the mix as the victim of Senator Teddy Kennedy’s negligence here invites further comparison to that show’s constant ante-upping in moral turpitude. These factors, among others, help to cast some of the concern in protecting Kennedy’s reputation as outlined in Chappaquiddick as quaint — in particular, why a married man was getting boozed with younger women, and then took one on a late night drive with the Clinton-ian motives that implies.
No amount of tabloid antics and dossier allegations can overshadow the tragic outcome of Kennedy’s poor decision-making and cowardice seen here, though. While Chappaquiddick may be a restrained retelling of events, there’s a real life-or-death issue behind Kennedy’s crisis management that casts his self-serving actions in a pretty despicable light.
Following the timeline of events in the public record, the film follows Jason Clarke as Kennedy, doing a creditable impression of the uncertain Senator. This 1969 version carries the weight of expectation that comes with being the last surviving Kennedy brother, and therefore the final vehicle for his horrid father’s desire to install the family in the White House. It’s a pressure that we see merge with his fear, weakness and dishonesty when Kennedy flees the scene of an accident with seemingly scant regard for the other person involved. Very quickly, the only thing he looks to save is his political career.
Clarke’s Kennedy comes across as a somewhat pathetic figure, and his confused inscrutability often serves to limit the impact of dramatising events that took place outside the public eye. Much of the film is spent on a mix of fact and speculation about the ten hours Kennedy spent panicking and trying to establish an alibi for his actions, but unfortunately doesn’t manage to get to his motivations or emotions.
By the time prevarication has given way to self-preservation, Chappaquiddick has successfully shown the awful lengths individuals and the ruling class will go to in order to preserve power; the disposability of young women during the era; and has exposed stunning selfishness. We still don’t know what’s going on Kennedy’s head even as the film concludes – maybe that’s the point, but something still feels missing.