Sink or swim: ‘Chappaquiddick’ is a reminder of the power, limitations of narrative

Nick Botkin

A pond and an overturned car line the poster for the movie "Chappaquiddick."
“Chappaquiddick” is a powerful, haunting tale about politics and the power of spinning narratives (Photo courtesy of Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures).

In a world consumed by political spin, the powerful write their own narratives.

This is the message of John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick.” 

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On a literal level, the movie focuses upon the aftermath of the real-life 1969 incident, in which Senator Ted Kennedy drove a car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. The incident resulted in the death of a young politico, Mary Jo Kopechne. But “Chappaquiddick” is really about the narratives power players create and the way truth is deftly manipulated.

Early in the movie, we see the senator in an interview. Played wonderfully by Australian thespian Jason Clarke, Kennedy is discussing his own place among the Kennedy dynasty.

“What would Jack have me do?” Kennedy muses, contemplating his assassinated presidential brother. 

As much as the senator wants to pursue his own course of action, he is living under a cloud of expectations and familial narrative. One brother, John, was president. Another, Robert, ran for president. Both were assassinated. Therefore, Kennedy is expected to run for president against Nixon. 

On a July evening, the senator hosts a party on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha’s Vineyard, for a group of women. The women previously worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Known as the “Boiler Room Girls,” the group includes Kopechne.

Late that evening, inebriated, Kennedy drives manically down a dirt road with Kopechne in the car. The car goes spiraling off Dike Bridge and into Poucha Pond. In Curran’s account, the senator escapes from the car and returns to the party, leaving Kopechne stranded.

And it is here where the filmmakers have to fill in the unknowns. The movie is based on various accounts from the investigation, including Kennedy’s own testimonies. However, there is no concrete information about what happened between the time of the incident and Kennedy’s decision to report it to the police ten hours later. 

“I am not going to be president,” Kennedy tells his cousin and lawyer, Joe Gargan, before describing the incident.

Gargan insists that Kennedy report the incident, but instead he returns to the hotel, while imagining Kopechne slowly succumbing in his water-filled car. And this is where the narrative truly takes off.

The movie’s real power stems from watching Kennedy and family associates, including speechwriter Theodore Sorensen and ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara attempt to craft a defense for Kennedy. The motive: spin the investigation in Kennedy’s favor and salvage his political career.

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Director: John Curran

Genre: Drama

Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Olivia Thirlby, Bruce Dern

Release date: April 6

Running time: 101 min.

Now playing at: Cinemark Fort Collins 16, AMC Classic Fort Collins 10

“We tell the truth or at least our version of it,” Kennedy says in a telling moment. 

 In one moment, Kennedy contemplates telling the press that Kopechne was driving the car. At another point, Kennedy even dons a neck brace to elicit sympathy from constituents. 

In another moment, Kennedy’s team tries to maintain control over the arrangements for Kopechne’s funeral, fearing damaging results from the investigation. 

“A dead body holds a lot of secrets,” a character says ominously. 

While the movie is strong overall, it is not without blemishes. The movie centers largely on narratives and truth, yet Mary Jo Kopechne is not fleshed out. The movie would have benefitted from exploring her flaws and insecurities. Even having the filmmakers fill in the unknowns about Kopechne would have been a good step, imbuing her with a voice.

Should you see this movie? Absolutely. Especially if ethics and politics are of interest.

“I am not going to be the one defined by my flaws,” Kennedy says. Yet, sometimes even the most powerful creator of narratives cannot avoid this judgment.

Collegian reporter Nick Botkin can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com. His Twitter handle is @dudesosad.