The Kennedy curse gets a new treatment
A new film looks at the accident that scuppered Ted Kennedy's presidential hopes
It’s just under 50 years since a young senator drove his car off a bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick, killing his 28-year-old passenger, a former campaign worker on Robert Kennedy’s tragic 1968 presidential bid named Mary Jo Kopechne. The US senator driving the car was Robert’s younger brother Ted and when he handed himself over to the police on the morning after the accident and admitted that he had been the driver, a media storm unlike any he and his well-known family had ever seen broke loose, threatened and ultimately scuppered Ted’s own plans for running for the presidency in 1972.The dream that dynasty founder Joseph had for regaining the highest office in the land for his seemingly cursed family would never be realised.
When Ted Kennedy died in 2009, much was made of his sterling senatorial service, his commitment to justice and long tenure. “The Lion of the Senate” was no more and, while many people from both parties commended his career and influence, the name of that Massachusetts island was barely whispered and Mary Jo Kopechne had long ago passed into the footnotes of history. But in 1969 her death and the name of the island on which she’d met it, were on the lips of every one in America – the curse of the Kennedys had this time spared Ted but he had questions to answer about his account of the events of the night of July 18.2018 is already a year in which the Kennedy legacy has been reinforced in its usual mix of open-mouthed admiration of the glamorous lifestyle and beauty of the family and teary-eyed head shaking at the tragic assassinations of John and Robert, thanks mainly to the six-part CNN documentary series American Dynasties and the four-part Netflix documentary Bobby Kennedy for President. Those works seem to have the support and participation of America’s royal family but you can be sure that John Curran’s dramatisation of the trials, tribulations and cold political calculations of Ted do not.Unlike many of the scandal-mongering, sensationalist conspiracy books that have been written over the years about Chappaquiddick, Curran and screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan do not make a case for Kennedy being a murderer or an adulterer (he was 37 years old and married at the time of the incident). While promotional spots for the film promise a telling of the story as you’ve never seen it before and a revelation of what really happened, the film is mostly based on accounts and testimony given as part of the original inquest.Without spoiling the plot it’s suffice to say that the film is suspenseful and gives some much needed fleshing out to the forgotten victim Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). The compelling performance by the always intriguingly inscrutable Jason Clarke paints a not always flattering portrait of Kennedy and his relationship with his father (played with suitable glum grit by Bruce Dern) and the reputation of his family. In the age of The Donald, of course, Ted’s determination to clear his name and protect his political career may seem a little quaint and old-fashioned but there is certainly relevance in the parts of the story involving the very powerful men-of-war team assembled in the wake of the tragedy by the family.Whether or not you see Mary Jo as “the original #MeToo victim” is debatable, but her rights to justice and dignity were arguably impinged on by the callous lengths to which the Kennedys were willing to go to protect their future “Lion of the Senate.”
Chappaquiddick may only prove interesting and satisfying to a small group of people who either remember the incident or those who wish to gather ammunition to attack the myth of Camelot but either way it’s a quietly relevant and generally well-executed piece of historical re-evaluation that raises some nasty questions about men in power.