It’s a relevatory moment, one that establishes that we’re looking at a man unburdened by shame or moral duty. “Chappaquiddick” does take a scornful look at one of the most notable figures of 20th century American politics, but it’s something more, an examination of the way powerful men insulate themselves from consequences with the help of others.
The film is perhaps the first Hollywood production to dispense with the Camelot fetishism of the Kennedy family. Made safely after the family’s power in DC has faded to nearly nothing, it’s nonetheless a blistering indictment of not just the family, but those who shrugged at their sins. The degree to which the media and historians have run interference for the Kennedy family is astonishing, and better late than never when it comes to getting the truth out.
Kennedy, as played by Jason Clarke, looks the picture of unearned entitlement. An oafish buffoon, this was a man who cheated his way through Harvard, who pushed open borders while walling himself up in secure compounds, who pushed socialized medicine but only saw the finest physicians capitalism could produce when his own health declined, who supported busing but sent his own children to elite private schools, who touted the virtues of family to his side tail while his lobotomized sister rotted in a mental institution out of the public eye. Say what you will about his legislative achievements, but the man was a nasty, contemptible piece of work by any morally sane measure. The movie doesn’t even touch on most of this, but its appraisal of his behavior during a week in 1969 is blistering.
The film charitably absolves Kennedy of an affair with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), the 28-year-old Kennedy groupie who was Ted’s passenger when he drunkenly drove his luxury Oldsmobile off a bridge. It’s even more charitable in suggesting that Kennedy did make a slight effort to rescue Kopechne from the submerged vehicle, but that’s where the script’s generosity ends.
What follows is a masterclass in narcissistic entitlement. Kennedy, sopping wet and wallowing in self-pity as Kopechne was suffocating nearby, sulks back to his cottage, where he enlists the aid of Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Massachusetts AG Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan). “I’m not going to be President,” he declares, foregoing the pretense of concern for the dead. Soon after, he’s sleeping peacefully in bed, and goes out for brunch before begrudgingly stomping over to the police station to report the accident. By that point, Kopechne’s corpse had been retrieved and the scandal had officially begun.