In 2016, I fell madly head over heels for Jackie, Pablo Larrain's mesmerizing, sumptuously designed picture which, serving as a career-best vehicle for star Natalie Portman, shines a spotlight on John F. Kennedy's presidency, from its glory days, when the White House was filled with grand entertainment and joy, to the horrors of that fall day in Dallas, Texas and the whirlwind of events that followed. Beyond Portman, the picture sports one hell of an ensemble, including Peter Sarsgaard, in prime form as the grieving Robert F. Kennedy.
John Curran's Chappaquiddick, focused not on John or Robert but Ted Kennedy, is decidedly not on the same sky-high level as Jackie. It is, however, still a spectacularly aggravating and entertaining film and features a gangbusters, Oscar-caliber turn from leading man Jason Clarke. It is also, I would argue, a more satisfying endeavor than say, Oliver Stone's overbaked JFK and the countless Kennedy-themed films and series that have graced the small screen.
As the film opens, it's the summer of 1969 and Kennedy (Clarke), now in his second term as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, is vacationing on Martha's Vineyard with the likes of cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. Also present is Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a former staffer on Bobby Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign.
Amidst a boozed-soaked party, Kennedy and Kopechne go for a drive and the former, more than a tad inebriated, sends the car flying off a bridge and into a pond. Unsuccessful in rescuing Kopechne, Kennedy stumbles his way back to the party and informs Gargan and Markham, who too fail to save Kopechne upon latermentering the scene. Gargan and Markham insist Kennedy turn himself into the police but instead, he returns to his hotel room, leaving law enforcement to discover the car themselves the following morning.
At this point in the picture, the proceedings are rather lackluster, clumsily staged by Curran and not terribly convincing. What happens from here, however, once Kennedy bolts for the family compound in Hyannisport, is absorbing stuff. Clarke has powerful scenes opposite a nearly mute Bruce Dern, playing father Joe Kennedy who, at this point, was on the verge of death. With mere glances, Dern vividly conveys his disappointment in his son, whose actions in his eyes have disgraced the family.
Making for riveting cinema is the public relations nightmare that comes of the incident, as the family's legal team, truly awe-inspiring in how they don't give the slightest shit about Kopechne, vie to not only protect Kennedy but perhaps even make him out of be some kind of hero. A key part of the film is also how Gargan becomes increasingly disillusioned with the family, convinced Kennedy can only save himself by resigning from the U.S. Senate. Of course, this does not come to fruition.
As Kennedy, Clarke rings all too true, portraying the politician as a man with overwhelming daddy issues, scant interest (at this point) in the presidency and an unease over the fashion family allies heartlessly approach such a tragedy. Yet, Kennedy is also plenty self-absorbed and unwilling to allow Kopechne's death to drive a fatal stake through his political career. The supporting players are also formidable, though Mara's turn as Kopechne proves a mostly thankless one - we barely learn a thing about her.
Chappaquiddick will hardly be setting this year's awards season on fire but, for Clarke's compelling turn alone, it's well worth a look.