The question nags with every Hollywood film culled from history: How much of this is true, and how much made up? Obsessive wondering can overtake the entertainment: instead of being swept up in the story, your fingertips are itching to start Googling.
With “Chappaquiddick,” the film that opens Friday about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in July 1969, and the role of Ted Kennedy in that tragedy, the quest to pinpoint the truth is not so simple. It is also nothing new. For almost 50 years, we have tried to fill in the gaps and piece together what happened that summer night on Martha’s Vineyard. For nearly as long, we have been forced to accept that the whole truth will elude us — always. So does that lessen the filmmakers’ obligation to history, or add to their burden? In a storyline warped by omissions and contradictions, are they freer to tell the story they want?
To viewers of a certain age in Massachusetts, much of this tale will be familiar. Kennedy arrives on the Vineyard for a sparkling summer weekend, sails in the Edgartown regatta as is his tradition, and returns to a cottage on rural Chappaquiddick to host a party for his brother Robert’s former campaign staffers. At one point, Ted, played by Jason Clarke, sits alone on a couch in the midst in the gathering, staring into space — in keeping with historical accounts of the senator, then 37, as still mired in grief for Bobby one year after he was killed. Then Ted leaves the cottage with Mary Jo (actress Kate Mara), tragedy looming ahead of them. She leaves her purse behind, as she did in real life — indicating she intended to return, and undermining Ted’s later claim that she felt ill and requested a ride to the ferry.
The movie stops short of suggesting an affair between them, but depicts their interaction as intense, the oddly intimate bond of two people not that well-acquainted but damaged by the same devastating loss. In the movie, they park the car somewhere and talk; Mary Jo seems to try and reach Ted through the fog of grief. This echoes what we know about her — that she had told friends she was struggling, and could not return to D.C. after Bobby’s death — but what was really said that night, we can never know. Did she tell him “we should get back to the party”? And did the married father of three answer, as he does onscreen, “No, we should go to the beach”? Maybe. Everyone who knows for sure is dead.
Once the black Oldsmobile flies off the bridge and hits the water, we are plunged into a no man’s land of history, a pocket of time when the only witness proved himself unreliable. Only Kennedy knew if what he later said was true, that he dove repeatedly underwater to try and rescue Kopechne, fighting the current, until he was too exhausted to continue. The filmmakers appear to reject this claim; in the movie, he gets onto dry land swiftly and then gets out of there fast. As in real life, he never stops to call the police, or even really considers it, until some 10 hours later, after the car is discovered in the water.
Those dark hours of inconceivable inaction are the defining juncture for the last surviving Kennedy brother. All we know of his thoughts are what he testified later, at the inquest into Kopechne’s death: that, like a child, he ached to wake up and discover that the accident had been a nightmare. Clarke, his face at once granite-hard and ghostly transparent, captures some of the paralysis Kennedy described, as he oscillates between cold political calculation and basic human longing.
Much of the film hews close to real events, with departures aimed at amping up the drama. Ted’s concussion diagnosis after the accident was seen as sketchy, but it feels like overkill when his movie advisers dream it up and then tell his startled doctor an exam “won’t be necessary.” One suspects that even the tensest family interactions were slightly less cinematic than the movie version, where Joan, Ted’s wife, in her only line in the film, spits the F-word at him in the back of a car (not that things were rosy; pregnant and on bed rest, she later wondered if the trip to Kopechne’s funeral led to her miscarriage). Further over the top is a scene with old Joe Kennedy — a demonic Bruce Dern, his face contorted with rage — slapping Ted and telling him he will “never be great.” (In fact, Joe’s nurse Rita Dallas later said the patriarch — crippled by a stroke, and nearing death — took Ted’s hand and held it to his chest when he learned of the accident.)
The critical unknowns in this awful story — how long Kopechne survived inside the car, and whether Kennedy could have saved her by calling help at once — are decided for us here by the filmmakers. As Ted soaks in the tub at his hotel, dresses nattily and combs his hair, we see Mary Jo still alive inside the car, banging on the windows, weeping and praying in an air pocket as the water inches higher and still no help arrives. This nightmarish sequence might be meant as Ted’s imaginings, but most viewers will read it as an assertion of what happened. It is an excruciating indictment, almost unbearable to watch — delivering a visceral reminder of the victim’s suffering — yet it is only one possible version of her death.
Because an autopsy was not performed — one of a series of procedural missteps and irregularities — the manner of Kopechne’s death was never conclusively established. John Farrar, the diver who recovered her body from the car, maintained his belief for decades that she did not die quickly by drowning, but suffocated after surviving for an hour or more in a pocket of air, based on the position of her body. (Farrar said he received death threats for his insistence.) To these filmmakers — whose story might have suffered from a more ambiguous telling — the possibility she lived long enough to be rescued is irresistible. In truth, though, we will never know if Kopechne’s death resulted from the accident alone, or Kennedy’s willful inaction.
The problem isn’t that the movie commits to this theory. This is a thoughtful film, attentive to the facts, but it is a film — we understand that it will plug holes with its own inventions. Marketing “Chappaquiddick” as “the untold true story” is a dicier business, however. After 50 years, no version of this story is untold, and this telling is no truer than the rest. It’s wrong, and more than a little silly, for Clarke to insist that Kopechne’s death is depicted as it really happened, as he did in a recent interview with the website Deadline: “Well, it’s a fact, it’s in a lot of reports ... We tried not to dramatize anything [we couldn’t verify].”
If that was the mission, then the movie is a failure. But many viewers, especially young ones, will accept it as fact. With that, history — even an incomplete history like this one — lurches precariously, morphing into something we can tweak to fit our needs.
The movie ends, as did the crisis, with Kennedy alone at a desk, appealing to the voters of Massachusetts in a televised address. Swayed by their longing for a lost Camelot, they overlooked his crimes (he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a suspended sentence) and returned him to the Senate. We hear, over the closing credits, the voices of commentators decades later, citing the litany of his life achievements. But beyond the people and places and events, what rings truest here is the unrelenting sadness, from the first scene of this movie to the last. The story is supposed to be about what happened, but the subtext is what might have been. It’s the lost potential, and the absences, that haunt us.Jenna Russell is a co-author of the Globe’s 2009 biography “Last Lion: The Fall and Rise and Ted Kennedy.” E-mail her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.