Warning label: Reenactments aren’t the truth. Movies based on actual events, especially those to which there were no independent witnesses, are works of speculation and dramatic jiggery-pokery, and to accept them as fact means potentially opening yourself to buying a conspiracy theory from Oliver Stone. Caveat emptor.
All that being said, “Chappaquiddick,” which opens Friday, is an entertainingly brutal portrait of feckless privilege and buried tragedy, hewing reasonably close to those points we know to be true and juicily provocative about what happened in rooms you and I weren’t privy to. And, of course, it stirs the pot of the Kennedy mythos, ever a source of fascination but especially in the clan’s home counties, where the obsession has always had a pitch of neurosis. We simultaneously love the Kennedys here and we hate them; are dead-tired of hearing about Camelot-on-Hyannis Port and eager for one more salacious crumb to fall from the table. They remain royalty in a country of grudging commoners.
And Teddy? The popular narrative, deserved or not, is that he was the kid brother who was doomed to survive, accepting the mantle but not quite up to the task. That narrative, of course, discounts decades and endless accomplishments in the Senate and remains at least partially blind to the sins of the brothers. And it especially pivots on one night in July 1969, when Edward M. Kennedy drove off a bridge in Martha’s Vineyard and the woman who was with him died.
Directed by John Curran (“The Painted Veil”) and scripted — at times with you-are-there heavyhandedness — by first-time feature writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, “Chappaquiddick” is what they call a tick-tocker, taking us through that Edgartown weekend and its aftermath with imagined precision. The portrait that emerges of Kennedy is damning but human, flawed and three-dimensional. For all I know, it might even be accurate.
The slightly anonymous Jason Clarke (“Mudbound,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) plays the senator, and very, very well; he captures the family swagger and the insecurity, a youthful vigor beginning to turn paunchy, a self-absorption that’s both nature and nurture. (All he gets wrong is the accent; he says “cawn’t” instead of “cahn’t.”) Kate Mara, who didn’t fare well at the hands of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in “House of Cards,” plays Mary Jo Kopechne, one of the “Boiler Room Girls” who worked for Bobby Kennedy and who, less than a year after his assassination, is still in a funk over his loss.
So is Ted, it’s implied, and while “Chappaquiddick” shows a country aching for the last Kennedy standing to announce a White House run, the man himself seems adrift. There’s a weekend beach-house party with the “girls” and a brooding conversation on a nighttime strand between Ted and Mary Jo; the film doesn’t suggest there was a physical relationship but hints that that might have been about to change.
Instead, Kennedy drove off the narrow wooden Dike Bridge from Chappaquiddick Island, the car flipped onto its roof, and Kopechne died underwater. The film shows Kennedy staggering back to the party house in a daze and, despite marching orders from his cousin and lawyer Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and friend (and former Massachusetts US attorney) Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), failing to report the accident until the following day, a full 10 hours after the crash.
Just to ensure we understand whose hands have blood on them, “Chappaquiddick” intercuts between Kennedy quietly freaking out in his Edgartown hotel bathtub that night and Mary Jo breathing her terrified last in an air pocket as the water creeps to her chin.
And yet, the more damning meat of the movie takes up the rest of the running time, as Gargan — the film’s woebegone conscience — urges his cousin to do the right thing (tell the truth, resign — it changes), while a roomful of powerful men scheme how best to save the family legacy and keep a Kennedy in the running.
They include adviser and speechwriter Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) and former defense secretary Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown). All have been called there by Joseph P. Kennedy himself, portrayed with burning eyes and a stroke-distorted rictus by Bruce Dern. It’s a shameless, irresistible piece of actorly mugging; even before we see him, Dern’s Old Joe can be heard on the phone, croaking “. . . Alibi . . .” like the devil on his son’s shoulder.
Curran keeps the action close in, on those low-ceilinged rooms where a cover-up is frantically concocted and Ted is getting refashioned into a victim, but the film nods to a greater epic being played millions of miles away. The Apollo 11 moon landing took place the same weekend as Chappaquiddick, and Neil Armstrong’s one step for mankind is placed cannily and cattily next to Ted Kennedy’s failure to pass a critical test of character. (The senator eventually pled guilty to leaving the scene and received a two-month suspended sentence.)
The dialogue has a tendency to drop with a psychologically convenient TV-movie thud: “The country ‘needed’ me? . . . They just needed my name,” Ted grouses at one point; in a later scene, one of his children innocently shoves the knife home by saying, “Uncle Jack could do anything, couldn’t he, Dad?”
Such tactics cheapen the movie more than they should. The more provocative drama, and, honestly, the most scandalous aspect of “Chappaquiddick,” is the implication that the incident really did mark Edward M. Kennedy’s coming of age — that to survive one immature, deadly snap decision he had to put his daddy issues behind him and finally become a politician, capable of betrayal, hypocrisies, and lies.
The cynicism in “Chappaquiddick” runs far deeper than the waters of Poucha Pond. It might even be accurate. I’ll never know, and neither will you.
Directed by John Curran. Written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. Starring Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms. Opens Friday at multiplexes in Boston and suburbs, Kendall Square. 101 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, historical smoking).