Ambiguous and damning at once, John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick” plunges us back into the summer of 1969: the season of Woodstock, the moon landing, the Manson murders and the lowest ebb of the Kennedy mythology.

It was six years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy and a year since Bobby was gunned down. But the Kennedy machine churned on. Jack Kennedy’s ambition to reach the moon was being realized by Neil Armstrong. Edward M. (“Teddy”) Kennedy, already seven years a senator, having filled his brother’s Massachusetts seat, was Joseph Kennedy’s only living son left and a likely future president.

Those aspirations effectively crashed when 37-year-old Teddy drove an Oldsmobile off a narrow bridge on a remote beach road on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha’s Vineyard, late at night on July 18. With him was 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign worker for Bobby (played by Kate Mara in the film), who died underwater. Kennedy escaped from the car, submerged in eight feet of water. Whatever his efforts were to free Kopechne, they were futile. It took him 10 hours to report the incident to the police. Kennedy attributed the delay to a concussion and exhaustion.

Chappaquiddick has long loomed in the political imagination as a kind of definitive-yet-murky scandal. Curran’s film is principally an effort to visualize and understand that evening. It’s a low-key, generally absorbing, if somewhat lackluster, procedural that ominously reflects on the darker shadows that loom behind even the brightest shining political hopes.

Jason Clarke, the Australian actor of “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” plays Kennedy. We’ve been so awash in hackneyed Kennedy brogues and caricatured portrayals that Clarke’s performance — stout, nuanced, understated almost to a fault — is an unexpected relief. His Teddy is a little more taciturn than the statesman was, but Clarke carries himself with the assumed importance and natural magnetism of a Kennedy.

Kennedy, of course, went on to serve four more decades in the Senate. So what’s the legacy of Chappaquiddick? How are Kennedy’s accomplishments to be reconciled with that night? Those aren’t questions much pursued in the largely self-contained “Chappaquiddick.” Curranis content to let the record speak for itself and perhaps suggest: Some politicians get away with more than they ought to.



Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language and historical smoking

Running time: 61 minutes


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