Chappaquiddick feels a bit like two distinct, competing-yet-complementary movies. The first is a character study of a tragically flawed individual, the son who can never live up to the expectations of his father or the example of his brothers yet masters the clan's tools for success, achieving public acceptance and private disgrace. The other is a comedy of errors, a farce, a darkly comic examination of the end result of seemingly hereditary immorality festering in a corrupt bloodline; imagine The Godfather if Fredo were the only surviving Corleone son at the saga's beginning.
Chappaquiddick unfolds over a few days in 1969 as the United States shoots for the moon and Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) hightails it up to Chappaquiddick, an island just off Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. He's there with his pals Joe Garagan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) to take part in a regatta and spend some quality time with the Kennedy coterie of "boiler room girls," the attractive secretaries and campaign workers who tended to flock to the Brahmins.
One such girl is Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), who had worked for Teddy's brother, Bobby. She was unfortunate enough to be in a car driven by Teddy when he, drunk as a skunk, drove off a bridge and into a shallow pond. He escaped somehow, meandering back to the cabin where Joe and Paul are still partying with the girls; she remained trapped in the car, sucking increasingly thin oxygen from a claustrophobic pocket of air.
Director John Curran skillfully captures the horror of Kopechne's final hours, crosscutting between her increasingly raspy gasps and Ted's drunken effort to compose himself and figure out how to handle the situation—one he knows will likely cost him a shot at the presidency. As she wheezes, he soaks in a tub. As she gulps for air, he combs his hair. As her eyes roll back, he lays down in bed: police uncalled, accident unreported.
Curran doesn't dwell or speculate on some of the racier aspects of l'affaire Chappaquiddick—we do not see the senator and the secretary canoodling; there is little more than the barest intimation of intimacy—choosing instead to focus on things we know. Things like "the Kennedys used their power and influence to get Teddy off the hook" and "the crash was first reported not by Kennedy after it happened in a timely manner that may have saved that poor girl's life but many hours later by a fisherman and his son."
There's something poignant and revealing about the salt-of-the-earth fisherman seeing the car in the water—his attention brought to the submerged vehicle by his son's surprised shout of "Dad!"—and sending his boy down the road straight away to call for help. There's no thinking, no hemming and hawing: Just what's right. Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern), meanwhile, when informed of the accident utters a single, stroke-strangled word: "Alibi."
The effort that goes into establishing that alibi is where Chappaquiddick makes the full turn to a comedy of errors. Kennedy apparatchiks like Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols) and Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) huddle with the senator and his pals as they try to figure out how to (a.) mitigate the damage Ted has already done by giving a statement to the cops and driving on an expired license and (b.) massage public interest in the issue, hiding it behind news of the moon landing and shaping the narrative when it finally does hit airwaves.
Brown, a truly under-appreciated character actor, is great as McNamara (who, between this and The Post, has come in for a real beating in recent months). Nichols, however, really sets the tone for this stage of the movie, in part because I can't help but think of his Sorenson as an extension—or perhaps more accurately, mirror image—of the characters he has played for Whit Stillman in his mannered, hyper-literate comedies. Nichols's Sorenson bears the affect of Charlie in Metropolitan or Ted in Barcelona, but the politico is dissimilarly amoral, concerned only with issues of image and culpability and trying to figure out how to extricate his family friend from trouble. The dry humor derived from Sorenson and McNamara's efforts over the last hour is occasionally uncomfortably funny, given the gravity of the subject matter.
Needless to say, Clarke's work in this movie is the standout, even if the Boston accent fades in and out occasionally: He plays Kennedy as a sort of daffy man-child who is desperate for his father's love, blinded by his privileged position, and utterly confident in his God-given right to hold the Kennedy seat in Massachusetts. Clarke's blank-eyed grin as he flies a kite while his world crumbles around him says everything that needs to be said about Teddy.
Kennedy, unlike Kopechne, would survive the ordeal, of course, serving in the Senate for an additional three decades and never again facing a competitive race to maintain his seat. But Chappaquiddick—like 2016's Jackie and last year's episode of The Crown focusing on JFK's visit to England—does a masterful job of explaining just how the Kennedy clan has used and abused their enablers in the media and the political establishment to build up the image of The Great American Family, as opposed to the snake pit of vipers and crooks they really were.