Neither hatchet job nor hagiography, Chappaquiddick insists on diving into the nebulous facts surrounding late the Sen. Ted Kennedy’s July 1969 car wreck that took the life of a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). The known facts are that on the night of July 18-- right before the moon landing-- the youngest Kennedy son (Jason Clarke) drove his car off of Chappaquiddick Island’s Dike Bridge. He then returned to his hotel room in Edgartown and did not report the accident until the next morning. The car and Kopechne’s body were discovered the next morning. Kennedy would never serve any jail time, though he would plead guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.
The film convincingly fills in some of the gaps of the official record, though what really happened is likely to remain forever shrouded in mystery. Instead, we are left with the history-shifting effects of the accident, like no Kennedy in the 1972 presidential election. The film does not offer salacious gossip-column tidbits about Kennedy or Kopechne. It does slightly tut the Kennedys, led by patriarch Joe Sr. (Bruce Dern), and their damage control team, led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown).
Naturally, the film lives and dies by Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), who eschews a big Kennedy accent in favor of a more naturalistic one; the decision was smart. His Ted comes unsympathetically alive as a Shakespearean figure whose fatal flaw may just be his family name.