Clarke, an Australian actor best known for his work in “Zero Dark Thirty,” plays Senator Ted Kennedy, the youngest son of a political dynasty. As the movie begins brothers John and Bobby have both been assassinated, gunned down while in office. It’s 1969 and Ted is eyeing a White House run in 1972.
The incident that gives the film its name took place on Friday, July 18, 1969. Kennedy threw a party on Chappaquiddick Island, a ferry ride away from Edgartown on the nearby larger island of Martha’s Vineyard, as a reunion of the “boiler-room girls,” six women who were the engine of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Also in attendance is Kennedy’s cousin (and fixer) Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Paul F. Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and political campaign specialist Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara).
While the others drank, danced and dined Kennedy and Kopechne took a fateful drive that would end when Kennedy veered off a bridge and into a tidal channel. Kennedy escaped, leaving Kopechne to drown.
What follows is the battle between Ted’s conscience and his political well-being, a mish-mash of power, influence and morality. Kennedy ultimately fessed up, pleading guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident causing bodily injury, but not before crafting a carefully worded statement and faking a concussion.
“Chappaquiddick’s” story of a weak man who panicked is a compelling one, especially when embellished with layers of political and personal intrigue. Clarke is physically imposing, a bear of a man, but plays Kennedy as a little boy. Blustery on the outside but always looking to his wheelchair-bound father (Bruce Dern) for approval. Kennedy Sr., a power broker who valued his son’s success more than the boys themselves, is only onscreen for a few minutes but his presence and influence looms large in the story.
The wheeling and dealing that surrounds the partial cover-up of Ted’s involvement in Kopechne’s passing are in part to try and protect Kennedy’s upcoming run for the White House and in part to the father of all Kennedys happy. It’s a fascinating dynamic and director John Curran finds a balance between the two high-stakes situations.
A strong supporting cast, including Ed Helms in a rare dramatic role, help pull back the curtain on the latter day Camelot, revealing the behind-the-scenes machinations that kept Ted Kennedy in the Senate and out of jail. “Chappaquiddick” is step-by-step, methodical, but the crime procedural elements of the story are second to the examination of the Kennedy power structure.