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Movie Review

Scandals engulf politicians daily. But rarely do those scandals involve a politician accidentally killing someone. Even more rarely do they involve someone with the fabled surname of … Kennedy.

But that's what happened on the night of July 18, 1969.

Sen. Ted Kennedy was driving from Massachusetts' Chappaquiddick Island back to Martha's Vineyard. His lone passenger was 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, an idealistic young woman who once worked for Robert Kennedy, who'd been assassinated a year before.

Kennedy's car plunged off the one-lane Dike Bridge, overturning before landing in the water below. Kennedy extricated himself from the vehicle. Mary Jo remained trapped inside.

The car was discovered by a fisherman and his son the next morning, shortly before Kennedy reported the incident to police in Edgartown, Massachusetts.

Chappaquiddick tells that tragic story—the latest in a line of tragedies for the "cursed" Kennedy family (something Ted himself mentions)—as well as chronicling Kennedy's wavering attempts to take responsibility afterward.

But the film does more than that. It also paints a portrait of a man who struggled to bear up under the heavy load of expectations that came with having the last name of … Kennedy.

Positive Elements

Perhaps the most positive thing about this movie has little to do with the tragedy it depicts. Instead, it has to do with how this story portrays Ted's relationship with his demanding father, Joe Kennedy Sr., and the warning it implies. We clearly see what happens when a man—in this case, Ted—fails to live up to his father's high expectations.

Ted's dramatized interactions with his father show us a horribly fractured relationship. He tells his father, "Joe Jr. was the favorite one. Jack was the charming one. Bobby was the brilliant one. And what did that leave for me, Dad? The fat one? The stupid one? I'll tell you what: The one who got in the most trouble. Well, I can be charming. I can be brilliant. I am the only son you got left."

Later he tells his father, "I wanna make you proud. It's all I've ever wanted. I've spend my whole life chasing your dreams for you, just like Joe. And just like Jack. And just like Bobby. And look what happened to them. They were great men. But they weren't great because of who you were. They were great because of who they were. Dad, I wanna be a great man. I just don't know who I am."

Joe Sr. replies coldly, "You will never be great." Ted then hugs his father with tears in his eyes, a gesture that perhaps conveys the younger Kennedy's determination to love his father, even if he never receives his father's blessing.

Ted's desire to please his father also informs the central moral dilemma in the film: Whether to come completely clean about what really happened and to accept responsibility for it.

Ted vacillates between wanting to do the right thing and wanting to downplay condemning details. As the story unfolds, his desire to tell the truth is at odds with his father's determination (via a team of political associates who served under John F. Kennedy) to do whatever is necessary to contain the fallout from the scandal. Throughout, Ted battles to deal with what's happened on his own terms, instead of those imposed by his father.

Joe Sr.'s advisors coach Ted to frame the accident in a politically advantageous way, a strategy Ted adopts before giving a televised statement about what happened. His cousin, lawyer and longtime advisor, Joe Gargan, strenuously opposes that decision. Ted says, "This may give me a chance at a new beginning." Gargan retorts, "This isn't about opportunity, it's about integrity."

Though JFK has been dead nearly six years when the events of the movie take place, America is just making good on the former president's vision of putting a man on the moon. Indeed, the weekend of the Chappaquiddick incident, astronauts from Apollo 11 were landing on the moon. JFK's legend, legacy and success cast—as Ted says in a televised interview—"a long shadow." He also adds, "I think my brother set a course for the entire nation … Even in my own life, I often ask, ‘What would Jack have me do?’

Immediately after the accident, Ted staggers back to a cabin where a number of his closest associates are drinking and dancing after an annual regatta race. Two of them, Gargan and Paul Markham, race to the accident site, plunge into the water and try to free Mary Jo. Later on, flashbacks and Ted's testimony suggest that he, too, tried to save her, though the way the film frames this claim makes it unclear whether he actually did so.

Spiritual Content

As her pocket of air collapses, Mary Jo desperately repeats the Lord's Prayer.

We see and hear several references to Catholicism. A woman sings "Ave Maria" at Mary Jo's Catholic funeral. (We see a priest there as well.) A portrait of the Pope hangs in her parents' home. An old speech from JFK at the outset of the moon program, which is rebroadcast during the lunar landing, references God: "And therefore, as we set sail, we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."

Ted's speech to America following the accident also contains spiritual references. He says, "I remember thinking whether somehow some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys." And after he asks his constituents to offer him feedback about whether to continue his career as a politician, he says, "I pray that I can have the courage to make the right decision."

In an earlier, heated conversation with Gargan, Ted compares his failures to those of two biblical characters: "Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. I have Chappaquiddick." Gargan responds, "Yeah, Moses had a temper. But he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea."

Sexual Content

Speculation swirled—speculation that's never fully been resolved—that Ted and Mary Jo were having an affair. The film never explicitly weighs in on this innuendo, but it does depict the pair as having definite chemistry. They look at each other with the kind of intense glances that lovers share. They're together, alone, late at night. And they're shown having a passionate discussion about Ted's political future. But we never see—or know—whether they crossed that line.

Later, we hear (in a montage of audio quotes from the media) more rumors speculating about that potential infidelity and the possibility that Mary Jo was actually pregnant, which is why an autopsy was never performed, it's alleged. The rumors are loud enough that Ted feels compelled to deny them in his speech to the nation, saying, "There is no truth, no truth whatsoever, to widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior and hers regarding that evening."

We see Mary Jo and another woman in conservative bathing suits that reveal a bit of cleavage. Ted kisses two women on the cheek as a greeting. Men and women dance and flirt at the cabin where Ted and his closest friends have been staying. Men trying to save Mary Jo from the car are shown in their wet underwear. We see Ted shirtless, as well as from the shoulders up in a bath. Ted's relationship with his own wife is exceedingly icy.

Violent Content

Several times, we see images of Ted's black Oldsmobile flipping into the water. He emerges, but Mary Jo is trapped. We see her fighting to stay in a collapsing air pocket. Later we see her corpse when it's pulled from the car (and again at her open-casket funeral). A medical examiner performs chest compressions to determine whether Mary Jo drowned, a procedure that coaxes some water and foam out of the dead woman's mouth.

One of the men who tried unsuccessfully to extricate Mary Jo receives a nasty cut on his shoulder in the process.

Ted and another man have an argument that devolves into a wrestling scuffle. Joe Sr. can barely speak due to a stroke, but as Ted leans in to hear him better at one point, the elderly man slaps his son's face angrily.

Crude or Profane Language

Two f-words, five s-words. God's name is misused half a dozen times, while Jesus' name is abused four times. We also hear one instance of "good lord." "H---" is uttered almost 10 times, and we hear one to three uses each of "a--," "d--n" and "b--ch."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Various characters smoke throughout the film. At the party, we see people imbibing various beverages, some of which are definitely alcoholic. (After the accident, Gargan returns to the cabin and collects all the empty alcohol bottles to get rid of them, intentionally disposing of potentially incriminating evidence.) Shortly before Ted and Mary Jo get in his car, Ted's shown holding a beverage of opaque liquid in his hand, and it's unclear whether it's soda or some sort of hard liquor.

The next morning at the cabin, everyone there is apparently passed out, with bottles and unconscious bodies all over the main living room.

Other Negative Elements

Joe Kennedy Sr. assembles a "damage control" team that will do anything and manipulate anyone—from people at the DMV, to the local police department, to judges, to journalists—to shape and minimize the Chappaquiddick narrative.

Ted himself is not a particularly reliable narrator. At times, it seems as if he's weighing which version of the story to tell. And it could be argued that he even becomes susceptible to his own lies as the truth of what actually happened gets increasingly murky, even in his own mind. (Multiple flashbacks depict different and contradictory things occuring immediately after the accident.)

What is clear is that Ted Kennedy left the scene of the accident and did not report it to the police until some 10 hours later. He was eventually charged with leaving the scene of accident, and he received a two-month suspended sentence. A judge says that his rationale for giving the minimum sentence was "because Kennedy had been and would be punished more than anything the court could do to him."


If you're expecting an exposé addressing unanswered questions about the events of July 18, 1969, prepare for disappointment. Chappaquiddick hews closely the broad outline of what we know happened that sad night: Ted Kennedy was driving. He swerved off a bridge. The accident killed a young woman. He didn't report it until hours later. That much is agreed upon.

Some important particulars—had Ted been drinking? Were he and Mary Jo having an affair?—remain shrouded in uncertainty. The film suggests that the more scandalous rumors could have been true, but it stops well short of saying they were. So Chappaquiddick is no Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theory. It doesn't speculate about what really happened—as if what really happened is some deep, dark conspiracy only recently unearthed. Instead, it tells the story of what we know happened.

Well, mostly.

The one place this biopic indulges in obvious theatrical dramatization is in its depiction of Ted's complicated relationship with his father and brothers. Chappaquiddick suggests that Ted Kennedy was a broken, hollow, scared man in July 1969. But the tragedy paradoxically awakened something in him too, a drive to ensure that Chappaquiddick didn't define him or his legacy.

That renewed drive, the film implies, required both compromise and courage. The cinematic result? Ted Kennedy is neither hero nor villain here, but a muddled man staggering between a desire to do the right thing and to protect himself at any cost. It's not a flattering portrait. But it's a surprisingly nuanced (if at times profane) one, a portrait that reminds us how the love of a father—or lack thereof—can shape the destiny of his sons and daughters.

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Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy; Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne; Ed Helms as Joe Gargan; Jim Gaffigan as Paul Markham; Bruce Dern as Joe Kennedy; Clancy Brown as Robert McNamara; Taylor Nichols as Ted Sorensen; Olivia Thirlby as Rachel Schiff; Andria Blackman as Joan Kennedy


John Curran ( )


Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures



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In Theaters

April 6, 2018

On Video

July 10, 2018

Year Published



Adam R. Holz

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We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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