Chappaquiddick Rescues the Truth: Kopechne Needn’t Have Died

The place name, Chappaquiddick, comes from a Wampanoag word meaning “separated island.” A large chunk of the town of Edgartown, Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard, it is attached to the rest of the island by a slim line of barrier beach, which is breached or repaired depending on the wind and water. Chappy is like much of Martha’s Vineyard, only more so. You have to take a ferry to get there. When you do, you find a land of narrow, rutted dirt roads and salt marshes inhabited by a mix of millionaires and old-time locals, the kind of place where you wouldn’t put guardrails on a one-lane wooden bridge over a shallow channel.

That bridge has become the most renowned feature of the place. It stands for certain solid facts. Many contemporary films seek to prove that there is no central truth to an event, just a series of narratives from different perspectives. Chappaquiddick, directed by John Curran and starring Jason Clarke, does not. We see subsequent narratives, but they clearly elaborate or contradict the central action. The film is true to life in other respects as well, neither sparing its characters’ faults nor maligning them. Though shot mostly offsite, it captures the spirit of Martha’s Vineyard, down to the vintage logos on the Edgartown police cars and a tubby police chief investigating a submerged car in his underwear and a scuba mask.

On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) hosts a party for a group of young campaign workers for his late brother Bobby, assassinated the year before. It is a reunion of a group known as the Boiler Room Girls, and one of them is a 29-year-old Pennsylvanian named Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). Kennedy takes Kopechne out for a drive late in the evening. Instead of turning onto the main road to the ferry slip, Kennedy drives his Oldsmobile toward Dike Bridge. The bridge turns left, but Kennedy continues straight and the car flips over and lands in the shallow channel. He somehow makes it out of the car, possibly swimming back to find Kopechne. The car’s doors won’t budge and she remains inside.

After sitting on the shore by the bridge, Kennedy makes his way on foot back to the house, where the party is still going on. In the movie, he summons his cousin, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), the former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. “We’ve got a problem,” he tells them in a quavering voice, “I’m not going to be president.” The two men attempt to rescue Kopechne, but fail. They get a boat and row Kennedy across the channel to Edgartown—Kennedy would later say he swam the distance, more than 500 feet, almost drowning in the process—with the understanding that he will report the accident to the town police. But he doesn’t. Instead of the police, Kennedy telephones his father for counsel. He croaks out one word: “Alibi.”

Kennedy returns to his hotel and, after some brief interactions with the hotel staff, turns in for the night. Meanwhile, Mary Jo remains in the car, her head in an air bubble, frantically praying Our Fathers and Hail Marys. The next morning, Kennedy chats with other guests over brunch about the results of the Edgartown regatta as though nothing happened. By that time, nine hours have passed. Gargan and Markham confront Kennedy at the hotel and take him back across on the ferry to Chappy, where he calls more friends for advice, but still not the cops. Meanwhile, locals find the submerged car, with Kopechne’s corpse in it. The rescue diver extracts her in less than a half hour. Kennedy gives a brief statement to the local chief of police and returns to the family  compound in Hyannis. Seven days later, he pleads guilty to leaving the scene of an accident causing bodily injury. His attorneys and the prosecutors agree that the minimum two-month sentence should be suspended, and the judge concurs.

Chappaquiddick has many elements of the classic story of family and political dynasty. Teddy grieves for Jack and Bobby but knows how much they overshadow him. He tells an interviewer that he always asks himself, “What would Jack have me do?” The question of whether he will prove himself worthy of the Kennedy name constantly hangs over him, as he pursues the path his father wants for him, whether or not he really wants it himself. “I want to be a great man,” he tells his father. “I just don’t know who I am.” “You will never be great,” he replies.

In a way, the movie shows Teddy learning to act like the head of his family. When he retreats to the Kennedy compound after the accident, a war cabinet is waiting. He flies a kite and watches cartoons when he needs to relax. Meanwhile, aides Ted Sorensen and Bob McNamara bullishly lead the charge to protect the legacy. They make sure to have constant control of “that dead girl’s body,” which is embalmed before any autopsy could reveal its secrets. They make sure to tell the truth “or their version of it,” on their own terms and to fit their own purposes. Ted’s big brother, the late President, in effect saves him and his team from their PR blunders: The lurid tragedy cannot compete with the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.

Mary Jo Kopechne died not because Ted Kennedy crashed his car, but because the legacy was more important than telling the authorities she was in it. The family mystique helped to obscure this even more than machine politics did. We see Mary Jo tell Teddy that, when it came to Bobby Kennedy, “it didn’t feel like politics; it felt like public service.” Many of the story’s minor characters are earnestly, openly behind Teddy. The accident is a problem that they want to help him solve. The Edgartown chief of police gets him off the Vineyard in a friend’s plane. The local prosecutor doesn’t press charges. The victim’s parents never blame him. When Gargan tells the Boiler Room Girls that Mary Jo is dead, that “every possible effort was made to save her,” their first response is, “What do we need to do to help the senator?”

Eventually, however, Gargan gets sick of stretching the truth. He’s a cousin the family adopted, but people break off their conversations with him when a real Kennedy walks in the room. As the movie progresses, he becomes the voice of conscience and the foil for what defines the family. Being a Kennedy means doing the right thing and following a clear moral compass, he argues. When Teddy attends Kopechne’s funeral in a superfluous neck brace, Gargan tears it off. “You’re not a victim, Ted!” he yells. Teddy wanders down the hall: “I’m going to ask Dad and see what he says.”

At the end of Chappaquiddick, everyone is preparing for Teddy’s televised statement about what happened. Gargan threatens to walk out, but Teddy asks him to prepare a letter announcing his resignation from the Senate. “I don’t know what’s right anymore,” he says. He needs a new beginning. When the moment comes, Gargan hands him the letter to read in place of Sorensen’s speech. But Teddy has made his decision. Why should America blame him when the Kopechnes don’t? We all have flaws, he says: “I’m not going to be defined by my flaws.” Gargan gets stuck holding the cue cards as Teddy earnestly asks the people of Massachusetts to “think this through with me. In facing this decision, I seek your advice and opinion. In making it, I seek your prayers. For this is a decision that I will have finally to make on my own.”

In a way, it mirrors our own debates about moral absolutes. Gargan believes in a world of objective right and wrong, honor and dishonor, doing the right thing no matter the cost. He sees the speech as a moment in which a man of integrity must show that integrity. Teddy sees it as a moment of opportunity. “Joey,” he says, “you have flaws. We all do, you said so yourself. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. I have Chappaquiddick.” “Moses had a temper,” Gargan replies, “but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.”