Blu-ray Review: Chappaquiddick

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First rule for any historical drama and/or biopic: take everything with a grain of salt. Artistic license is almost always taken when adapting any historical event or life story to meet the confines of a two-hour studio production. That said, at their very best these "based on a true story" films are important jump-starters for viewers to learn more and independently investigate the topic at hand. Chappaquiddick is one such film. Tastefully made and imminently thought-provoking, director John Curran's chronicle of the death of Mary Jo Kopechne doesn't answer all the lingering questions—nothing ever will—but it should inspire viewers to take a closer look.

And while the titular island in Massachusetts immediately invokes the name Ted Kennedy for everyone over, say 40, it's essential to remember that most younger folks won't even know what that mouthful-of-a-word even represents. Basically, then-young (37 at the time of the 1969 incident) Senator Ted Kennedy was the next-best hope for having another Kennedy reach the White House following the assassination of Robert Kennedy. But presidential hopes came to a crashing halt on the night of July 18 when Kennedy wildly drove off a low bridge, late at night, with 28-year-old Kopechne (played here by Kate Mara) as a passenger. The car overturned in the relatively shallow waters of Poucha Pond. The senator emerged from the pond unscathed, but Kopechne died in the submerged car. 
Chappaquiddick kate mara.jpg The subject of Curran's film isn't so much "what really happened," but rather a depiction of how powerful, influential people are able to spin negative situations to their advantage. The young senator made a series of unfathomable blunders immediately following Kopechne's death (officially ruled a drowning), not the least of which being his failure to even report the accident to authorities for some ten hours. A small army of legal advisers is quickly assembled in order to begin the process of damage control. Though he would attempt to challenge President Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination a decade later, it seemed any hopes for Ted Kennedy holding the highest office in the land were ditched in the wake of Chappaquiddick. But of course, Senator Kennedy went onto to hold public office for decades—eventually finishing his career (and life) as the fourth-longest serving senator in history.

If you have absolutely zero background knowledge about the political climate of 1969 and the era's overall state of world affairs, the movie isn't going to necessarily enlighten. But when seen in context, Chappaquiddick—boasting a terrifically modulated performance by Jason Clarke as Kennedy, Ed Helms as Kennedy-cousin Joe Gargan, and a terrifying appearance by Bruce Dern as ailing, near-death Joseph Kennedy Sr.—is hauntingly inconclusive. It might've been easy for Curran and company to create a real muckraking, finger-pointing piece, or to indulge in one (or more) of the many conspiracy theories that have cropped up around the incident. But instead, the filmmakers (Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan co-scripted) take a subtler, braver approach. There are hints that leave the viewer guessing as to what might or might not have contributed to the accident. And there's enough here to lead inquisitive viewers to, at the very least, search up "Chappaquiddick incident" on Wikipedia in order to start learning more.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray edition includes two featurettes. "A Reckoning: Revisiting Chappaquiddick" is the longer one at 25 minutes, while "Bridge to the Past: Editing the Film" (12 minutes) focuses on the editorial work of Keith Fraase.

In it's quiet, unassuming way, Chappaquiddick is among the most memorable politically-themed dramas to come out of Hollywood in recent years.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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