“‘I’m not gonna’ become president.”
That’s the reaction of Edward M. “Teddy” Kennedy (played perfectly by actor Jason Clarke) in the new movie “Chappaquiddick,” shortly after he drunkenly drives a car off a bridge into a shallow pond and leaves a young woman to die in a half-submerged car.
CNN, of course, hated the movie. “‘Chappaquiddick’ is heavy-handed history, a film that at times seems to owe as much to ‘The X-Files’ as the many cinematic dives into the target-rich territory that is the Kennedy clan,” wrote critic Brian Lowry. So, too, did The New Yorker. “The sketches of Kennedy-family tensions and loyalties are thin and simplistic; the action rushes by with little insight or context,” wrote Richard Brody.
And one opinion writer for The New York Times went so far as to call the movie “character assassination” and “tragedy distortion.”
The film, Neal Gabler writes, “has been heavily promoted by conservative media outlets, and reviewers across the political spectrum have praised what they deem its damning but factual approach. Damning it is; factual it is not.”
Mr. Gabler writes that the film’s advertisements claiming to tell the “untold true story” of a “cover-up” is pointless because “the story has been told plenty, and no one but the most lunatic conspiracy theorists see this as anything but a tragic accident in which nothing much was covered up.”
In that “tragic accident,” Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, was left to die.
“Many scenes cross from dramatic interpretation to outright character assassination. In this version, the Kennedy character leaves Kopechne to die as she gasps for air, and then, with the aid of his brothers’ old advisers, cooks up a scheme to salvage his presidential ambitions,” Mr. Gabler writes.
But that’s exactly what happened — exactly.
On July 18, 1969, Kennedy attended a party on Chappaquiddick, an island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Also attending were the “Boiler Room Girls,” nicknamed for the campaign office in which they worked during Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. All six women were single and 28 years of age or younger; all but one of the six men who attended were married and older.
Contrary to what the Times’ writer claims, the movie does not delve into conspiracy theories — Kennedy does not appear drunk and there’s no mention of the rumors that spread after the accident that Kopechne was pregnant with Kennedy’s child.
But the film does wade into some territory for which there is much factual support. An autopsy was never performed on Kopechne (the police chief and judges involved were all in the bag for Kennedy), but there is evidence that she did not drown. When her body was found in the submerged car, “It looked as if she were holding herself up to get a last breath of air. It was a consciously assumed position She didn’t drown. She died of suffocation in her own air void. It took her at least three or four hours to die,” diver John Farrar said in 1970 during the inquest into her death.
And the movie perfectly captures Kennedy’s attempts to cover up the circumstances of her death, bringing in a team of high-powered politicos to concoct a plausible story. In one hilarious scene, Kennedy dons a neck brace to look injured (he wasn’t) and his only true friend, cousin Joseph Gargan (who throughout the movie plays a sort of Good Angel on his shoulder), forcibly rips it off him.
Spoiler alert: In the end, Kennedy skirts the law. He’s eventually charged only with “leaving the scene of an accident without negligence involved” and receives two months in jail — suspended. Long after the case died down, it was reported that Kennedy paid the parents of Kopechne $90,000 ($615,000 in 2018 dollars).
What the viewer is left with is simply a portrait of a weak man — perhaps beaten down by a brutal and demanding father and the pressure of being the last of four of America’s most famous brothers: War hero Joseph Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert. F. Kennedy, all of whom died before him. But throughout, Kennedy’s weak moral core is exposed: He makes the easy choice every time, the one most likely to save his skin.
Which makes the end of the movie exactly perfect. After Kennedy’s lenient sentencing, he went on TV in a nationwide broadcast to address the American people. At the end of his speech, he quoted from his brother Jack’s book, “Profiles in Courage.”
“It has been written, ‘A man does what he must — in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures — and that is the basis of all human morality. Whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow man — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage cannot supply courage itself. For this, each man must look into his own soul.’”
Ted Kennedy, the “lion of the Senate” praised by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as a great man, looked in his soul that July night and found — nothing.
And that’s the truth.
• Joseph Curl has covered politics for 25 years, including 12 years as White House correspondent at The Washington Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @josephcurl.
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