There will be those who view “Chappaquiddick,” the new film about the 1969 car crash involving the late politician Ted Kennedy, as offensive, a post-mortem desecration of a public servant who made a tragic mistake. Others will find it offensive for a different reason, saying that the film humanizes a man who left his car underwater with a woman inside, and relied on powerful allies to minimize the incident.
Such are the dueling legacies of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a member of the prodigious Kennedy political family who went on to serve for decades in the U.S. Senate, but who was also convicted of leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign worker for Ted’s brother Bobby Kennedy.
Director John Curran (“The Painted Veil”) said that, in order to make a compelling film that didn’t slide into sensationalism, he and the film’s writers relied as much on primary source documents as possible.
“The writers drew from the inquest testimony, where everyone testified under oath and published that document,” Curran said. “Our goal was to drill into the truth as much as we could, and we looked at a lot of sources beyond the inquest testimony to see if we could glean anything else.”
In instances where testimonies contradict each other, Curran said his team shot multiple versions of the same scene. In the film, you’ll see one scene in which Kennedy swims away from the submerged car almost instantly, then later steals a rowboat and heads back to the mainland. In a different scene, when Kennedy is reading his typewritten testimony to the Edgartown chief of police, the submerged car scene is repeated, but this time with Kennedy heroically diving several times in an attempt to save Kopechne, then swimming back to the mainland before collapsing on the beach in exhaustion.
“Sometimes we had Ted’s version versus what we learned to be another version,” Curran said. “It’s kind of that ‘Rashomon’ effect in the film, in telling multiple perspectives. That gets us around some places where we didn’t want to make something up.”
Actor Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Terminator Genisys”), who plays Kennedy, said he was initially “quite shocked, quite angry” when he read the script for “Chappaquiddick.”
“You really can’t believe this happened, and that this man got away with it,” Clarke said. “I had felt so many things about this man, his family, the Democratic party. So I thought, ‘This can’t be true,’ but then I went back and read about it.
“The biggest thing was that [Kopechne] was possibly alive,” Clarke continued. “How do you get around that? You can’t get around it, and that’s the point. That’s where it really started to grab me. I couldn’t let it go after that.”
Clarke underwent a physical transformation to play Kennedy, adding a wig, false teeth, and “plumpers” in each of his cheeks to square his jaw and make it more Kennedy-esque.
In order to capture the distinct Kennedy version of the Boston accent, Clarke also enlisted the help of a dialect coach, who took him through syllable by syllable of his pronunciations, and listened to endless loops of Kennedy’s speeches, as well as speeches by his brothers Bobby and John F. Kennedy.
“I listened to them for hours, just going over them and learning them by heart,” Clarke said. “I’d go through them just to pick up their rhythms. The way they would build up an idea just to bring it down. I loved that.”
Clarke said that those who worry that he and others involved in making “Chappaquiddick” came into the film with an agenda, or purposely omitted certain facts or perspectives, are off base.
“I don’t think we put any lens on it,” Clarke said. “I don’t think we need to. There’s no shying away from what he did. The fact that he did not report it straight away and that [Kopechne] was very possibly alive for a while and died of asphyxiation, you can’t avoid that.
“Whether you want to judge or condemn Ted, this film is one part of his life, and his legislative history and record stands by itself as well,” Clarke continued. “Now, you can say what he did was unforgivable or whatever, but legislation lives on. What he’s done will continue to exist. The film is both a very intimate look at his moral choices he made, and the moral choice the people made in continuing to elect him.”
It’s that “moral choice the people made” that moves into focus at the film’s conclusion. After spending almost the entire film on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod in closed spaces like the Edgartown police station and the Kennedy compound in Hyannis, the film ends with Clarke recreating Kennedy’s nationally televised speech about the incident, followed by authentic archival footage of a reporter asking passersby what they thought of the speech and of Kennedy in general. Curran said that after going through 40 minutes of footage, it was hard to find more than a couple of people who had anything negative to say about Kennedy, with most saying they would vote for him if he ran for office.
“What’s funny is the reporter is getting really frustrated to the cameraman, saying, ‘Is there any negative comment I can find here?’” Curran said. “Everyone was like, ‘I don’t really know what happened, but I’d vote for him again.’”
Both Clarke and Curran mused about what the public’s response to Kennedy would be today, and said that part of the importance of telling the story of “Chappaquiddick” nearly 50 years later is its relevance in America’s current social and political climate. Clarke specifically invoked the presidency of Donald Trump, who famously said in 2016 that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and he wouldn’t lose voters.
“I don’t think Ted would have gotten the same chance at a second act now if Chappaquiddick happened today,” Curran said. “It’s a different time. But then again, is it?”
“We’re all here watching it,” Clarke chimed in. “We’re all Billy Bush when Trump comes off of the bus. We saw what Clinton did, we watched Bush, we’ve seen it all, on both sides of the political spectrum. This stuff doesn’t come from nowhere, and this movie is a reminder that these things have been happening for a long, long time.”