Directed by John Curran
Written by Taylor Allen & Andrew Logan
Starring Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, & Jim Gaffigan
Whenever I contemplate the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, the Republican in me always asks in anguish, “Why couldn’t it have been Teddy Kennedy who drowned and not the girl?”
From a Right-wing (albeit somewhat bloodthirsty) perspective, such a question does make sense. We all know the youngest Kennedy’s appallingly liberal record in the Senate. We all know about his nigh-treasonous flirtations with the Soviet Union. We all know his key role in the egalitarian miscreation that was the No Child Left Behind Act, to say nothing of the horrendous 1965 Immigration Bill (four years before Chappaquiddick, but still . . .). We all know how much better off the United States would have been without this odious man causing trouble in government. Thinking about a Senate in the 1960s and 1970s without its big-haired liberal ballast from Massachusetts certainly makes me happy. Reminding myself that that’s not how things turned out in real life, however, has the opposite effect. Perhaps this is why I try not to think about the incident at Chappaquiddick.
I am quite sure that the more honest folks on the Left have similarly mixed emotions about the incident. The man was a sitting Senator who was driving drunk; he was cavorting with a young woman who was not his wife; he crashed his car into a lake; he fled the scene, leaving the girl to die; and then he tried to cover it up for the sake of his political career. It must not be pleasant when guilt rubs up against party loyalty as you’re voting for him for the ninth time in forty-four years.
The brilliance of Chappaquiddick, the 2017 film dramatization of this incident, is that, with its artistic restraint and narrative vision, it makes you forget all your feelings about it. The film becomes its own universe and can be viewed and analyzed absent any knowledge of historical events. To accomplish this, it simply tells the Chappaquiddick story with a light touch and gives the actors ample room to humanize their subjects. The question of whether the film makes Ted Kennedy sympathetic or true-to-life becomes moot. The film renders him realistic – with virtues and foibles no different than anyone else – and goes no further than that. By eschewing a singular point of view, Chappaquiddick lets the audience decide if Kennedy or any of the other characters deserve sympathy, which is good and proper for any work of art. This is in contrast with Thirteen Days, another excellent film about the Kennedys, which is really the story of Kenny O’Donnell, who was a chief White House advisor and longtime friend of the Kennedys.
Unlike other films which are based on real events and are thus constrained to some extent by history, Chappaquiddick offers an intriguing beginning, a gripping middle, and a satisfying end which, upon reflection, makes the film a coherent whole and inspires one to contemplate its themes as they appear in life.
Ted Kennedy’s (played with subtle power by Jason Clarke) contradictions become apparent early on when he’s giving an interview to the press. As he’s spouting off the typical Kennedy family boilerplate, he’s asked what it’s like to live in the long shadow of this brother Jack. To this, naïve soul he is, Kennedy doesn’t know what to say. Moments later, he’s expertly manipulating his attorney-cousin Joey Gargan (played by a manically convincing Ed Helms) to make complex arrangements for the fateful party on Chappaquiddick Island.
Like any good protagonist, Kennedy is faced with dilemmas which point to universal dichotomies that define his character – and many of ours as well. Is he an independent adult or the inconsequential pawn of a domineering family? Does he feel remorse for his sins or is he a calculating politician concerned only about his career? And in the end, does he do what’s right or does he only do what’s necessary?
On the night of the incident, Kennedy delivers a moving speech to his friends and colleagues in the beach house where the party is being held. It’s about family, idealism, and loyalty, and director John Curran plays it straight. There’s no soundtrack, only the crickets from outside. There’s no heavy-handed cinematography or fancy camerawork. We get no cynical looks from the listeners or ironic mannerisms from Kennedy himself. Within the peculiar universe of Chappaquiddick, we understand that Ted Kennedy the character is being quite sincere; it matters not what we know or suspect about Ted Kennedy the man.
When talking about his brother Bobby, he says, “We miss him every day. His memory endures. His ideals will endure. And we will persevere because that’s what Kennedys do. And I want you all to know that because you are all part of the Kennedy family now.” Afterwards, when a partygoer declares that Kennedy will win the White House in 1972, Curran zooms in ever so slightly on Kennedy, who does not acknowledge the boast. We realize that he’s not so sure. And it is this unease, or perhaps fear, that soon becomes the topic of his conversation with Mary Jo Kopechne, the girl whose life he is about to inadvertently destroy.
Again, is he his own man? Or is he just a good-looking cog in a machine? The film gives no answers – because there aren’t any – but after Mary Jo’s drowning, Curran and Clarke depict Kennedy struggling to reconcile these two extremes. When he stumbles back to the beach house, the first thing he says to Joey is, “I’m not going to be President.” He does nothing while Joey struggles in vain to free Mary Jo from the submerged car. He doesn’t report the incident. He steals a rowboat to get back to his hotel. If the filmmakers wished to portray Kennedy in the most jaundiced light after such soft, stupid cowardice, they could have done so.
But they didn’t.
The scene in which Kennedy submerges himself in the bathtub that night as he flashes back to that poor girl drowning in his car is about as harrowing as anything you’re going to find in cinema. You see, he does care. And in the next few days, despite numerous self-serving, deceptive acts – such as claiming that Mary Jo had been driving – he begins to make independent strides. He begins to assert his own identity, not as a Kennedy but as himself. Of course, he’s not always the smartest person in the room, so he makes mistakes, sometimes gross ones (the ridiculous neck brace at Mary Jo’s funeral was one). But he also has moments of clarity which others are forced to recognize.
His trip to the Edgartown Police Department represents his first baby steps towards independence – towards manhood, really. He reports the incident in person to the Police Chief, but before that he calls Mary Jo’s mother to break the news (albeit in an evasive and passive way: “Mary Jo was involved in an accident,” he says). His tears afterward are real, as is his promise to his dying father over the phone to “tell the truth” and “do what’s right.” All the old man can say is “Alibi!” and urge his boy to lead the family, not himself. After this, the son hangs up.
So there is a moral compass spinning around in Kennedy’s mind after all, and the film’s suspense results from whether that needle will stop on true north or not. There was a similar story arc in The Godfather. Will Michael become one with the family, or will he step forward and do the right thing? When he lies to his wife about his role in the revenge-murder of his sister’s husband and then closes the door on her, you know what the resolution is. Chappaquiddick leads towards a similar climax. Will Ted Kennedy do the right thing in the end? And also, what is the right thing? In The Godfather, this latter question is less murky than in Chappaquiddick.
As Kennedy flies home, Curran provides slow aerial footage of the massive mansions in Kennedy’s neighborhood coming into view. The old man’s minions in government (most notably, Ted Sorenson and Robert McNamara) assess the damage and devise plans of action. The empire is about to strike back, and it comes in the form of the family’s wheelchair-bound, enfeebled patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, Sr. (in an unforgettably creepy performance by Bruce Dern). After slapping his son across the jaw, he leads him into a room where his brain trust is waiting, and which is now being entrusted to find a solution to the problem. Sorenson says it best: “Well, Bob, you handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, let’s see what you can do with this one.” When presented by this phalanx of realpolitik professionals who understand the law and avenues of government better than he ever will, the younger Kennedy quickly realizes that he’s not in Mayberry, and that the unvarnished truth just isn’t going to fly.
So maybe doing the right thing is not so easy after all. But when is it ever?
And as Kennedy allows himself to get sucked further and further into the less-than-honest machinations of his father’s team, his cousin Joey watches with growing concern. The truth of the incident slowly gets chipped away until we realize that the whole affair has gone from doing what’s right to doing what’s necessary to survive. The team is willing to say or do almost anything to save Kennedy. For Joey, this is bad. He wants his friend, cousin, and colleague to man up and be honest with the people. During an interlude, while Kennedy is on the beach flying a kite, Joey tells him he can’t let him self-destruct. It may seem like he’s referring to Kennedy’s political future, but it’s more like he’s worried about his soul.
Before his televised statement to the country, Kennedy seems to have come around to Joey’s way of thinking. He instructs his cousin to write his resignation speech. But when the time comes to choose that honest speech over the dishonest one his father’s team had prepared for him, Kennedy tells his friend, “I don’t know what’s right anymore,” and then reminds him that “we all have flaws.”
Joey is disgusted because he knows what’s about to happen. Given that we have the benefit of hindsight, we do as well. In the credits, we learn that Joseph Gargan became estranged from the Kennedys after the Chappaquiddick incident, apparently unable to abide his cousin’s mendacity to the American public. But in a series of contemporaneous interviews with Massachusetts voters, we learn that most of them still supported Ted Kennedy and believed his side of the story.
In some ways, this is an ending more profound than that of The Godfather. Despite his virtuous family loyalty, there is no doubt that Michael Corleone has opted for the side of evil at the film’s close. In Chappaquiddick, however, it is left up to the audience to decide. The film says nothing about Ted Kennedy’s politics. In the context of the story, he could be a Democrat or a Republican, a dove or a hawk, a card-carrying Communist or a member of the John Birch Society. This film is not about politics so much as it is about a politician who is forced to deal with a fascinating dilemma: Do the right thing for oneself while failing to serve others, or do the wrong thing for oneself while serving others. With the film’s ambiguous ending, it could go either way. And this might be Chappaquiddick’s crowning achievement.
From here I would like to take a leap of imagination – and I hope you, as white advocates, will follow me. What if . . . Ted Kennedy had done the right thing? What if he had known that his importance to his cause outweighed the innocence of his own soul? What if his connection with his constituents – and their connection to him – had trumped his moral duty to the girl he accidentally killed? Now, from a partisan perspective we can object all we want. We can complain about how the Left has no honor, that they’re hypocrites and cowards and traitors and anything else we can think of. But they sure know how to win, don’t they? We can bask in our moral superiority over the Ted Kennedys of the world, but is that any consolation for losing the culture wars? And let’s be honest: If our White Nationalist paladin ever does materialize and offers us a shot at either turning back the clock to 1965 or realizing an ethnostate, which one of us would want to sink the movement over a dead girl in a lake? Putting him in prison for involuntary manslaughter is not going to bring her back, you know.
Yes, Ted Kennedy was the enemy. His 1965 Immigration Bill alone will be enough to gain him eternal enmity in any white ethnostate. What this wonderful film can teach white advocates, however, is the power of loyalty and identity. Ted Kennedy couldn’t throw away his career, because his people identified with his family more than he did. They were loyal to his cause more than to him, and so his personal sins became largely irrelevant. The day white people adopt this same attitude towards other whites who represent them and their collective racial interests in government will be the day we emerge victorious in the culture wars . . . regardless if we have to pull a body out of a lake.
Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You .