3 Stars – Sobering
Sometimes in remembering events that happened during our lifetime it is hard to know truth from fiction. Biographers can put into words whatever story they want to tell, but only those who were there know the real history. For the rest of us, we will have to settle for dramatic retellings of the tale and make our own decisions about what it reveals.
Chappaquiddick Island, a part of the town of Edgartown, Massachusetts, is a small peninsula on the eastern end of Martha's Vineyard. It is best known for being the location of Senator Ted Kennedy’s involvement in the 1969 fatal car accident that took the life of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, and changed the course of both of their young lives forever.
Being the remaining son of a beloved American family, Ted was destined to follow in the footsteps of his hero brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy. President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 had left an indelible mark of the psyche of the country, and when Senator Robert Kennedy sought to regain the White House in 1968, it seemed like the end of a long national nightmare. Then, the unthinkable happened, and Robert Kennedy was himself assassinated on the evening of his triumphant win in California for the nomination to be the next President of the United States.
At his funeral, Ted Kennedy gave a eulogy that galvanized the nation in its grief, and he immediately rose to become the heir apparent of the legacy created by his siblings. So much hope was riding on his shoulders, and Ted Kennedy would be the first to admit that the weight of that expectation was crushing. It was having a devastating impact on his marriage with his wife, Joan, as she was becoming despondent, withdrawn, and descending into chemical numbness.
Ted was also under the crushing expectations of his powerful father Joseph, a man who was an American “king-maker.” Powerful in his ambitions, he had married Rose, the daughter of the Mayor of Boston, and they had a dynastic cast of nine children who would go on to change the nation in many positive ways. Joseph was appointed to be the United States Ambassador to the Court of St James's in England, and he had determined that his oldest son, Joe, would one day become President of the United States. Tragically, Joe was killed in battle in World War II. With three sons in a row destined to become President, and all three now dead in service to their country, the level of expectation on young Ted was overwhelming.
Chappaquiddick is close enough to the facts to almost be a documentary. Much of the incident was shrouded in the shadow of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon on the same weekend. While the world watched and gasped at Neil Armstrong first setting foot on the moon, Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) was gasping for air trying to cope with a small party on the island going from bad to a disaster, and watching his loving friend die in front of him – along with his reputation, legacy, and family expectation.
Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) drowned that night when Ted lost control of his car and drove off a bridge, landing upside down in a shallow river. Although he got out, he couldn’t save Mary Jo, and in despair he found his way back to the cabin where the rest of his team was staying. With the help of his colleagues, they dove into the river, but could not find Mary Jo. While his best friend and attorney, Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), pleaded with Ted to go directly to the police and tell them what had happened, Ted wandered back to Edgartown to his hotel and called his father Joseph (Bruce Dern) to ask for his help. Joseph Kennedy, Sr. was only weeks away from his own death, and having suffered from a stroke and unable to speak, he was a shadow of the powerful man he once was. Even so, he made it clear that he was angry, deeply disappointed in his son, and more interested in protecting the family name than in giving his son wise advice. The end result was that Ted went to bed without reporting the crime.
The course of the rest of the story is what transpired as a result of taking his father’s advice. It is a fact that the car and body were found the next morning before Ted Kennedy reported the accident. The investigation and handling of the case was a classic story of small town politics. The public relations aftermath was handled by his father’s henchmen, his relationship with his father was destroyed, and his best friend and adopted brother, Joseph Gargan, never spoke to him again thinking that he should have resigned his Senate seat. After pleading his case to the nation on national TV, he was given grace by the public and received the lightest of sentences by the court. Whether what he did following this tragedy was redemption for his actions, or not, only history will tell. For the rest of us, we are left to draw our own conclusions.
Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy went on to become one of the most beloved Senators of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and he died a restored hero to people on both sides of the political aisle on August 25, 2009. He served in the Senate for 47 years, the fourth-longest-continuously-serving senator in United States history. His son, Patrick J. Kennedy, served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from Rhode Island's 1st congressional district from 1995 to 2011. At Patrick’s retirement, it was the first time since 1947 that a member of the Kennedy family was not serving in either Congress or as President of the United States.
- The ambition of Joseph is seen in all of his sons. How has your father or mother’s ambition, or lack of ambition for you effected your life?
- Do you lay the blame for what Ted Kennedy did that night after the accident on him or on his father? At what age does a person have to make his own decisions and account for them?