Chappaquiddick: Uneasy, by Jim Rohner
“Uneasy lies that head that wears the crown”
– Henry IV, Part 2
Though never once spoken or even vaguely referenced by any of the players in Chappaquiddick, the evergreen warnings of William Shakespeare about the consequences and expectations of power and influence deliberately hang over John Curran’s film – just as heavily, one would estimate, as they did over the head of Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) both before and after he caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).
Chappaquiddick, as the name implies, is focused on the tragedy and aftermath of a car accident on the titular peninsula that resulted in the death of Kopeche at the hands – well, wheels – of Kennedy. Surrounding the actual event were sordid and salacious rumors of both Kennedy’s relationship with Kopechne (were they lovers?) and what really caused the Oldsmobile Demlont 88 to careen off the Dike Bridge (had he had too much to drink?), but Curran and screenwriters Taylor Allen & Andrew Logan show early that they’re not as concerned with speculating on what physical factors contributed to the crash as they are the emotional factors. If there were any emotion that bonded Kennedy and Kopechne beyond friendship, they hypothesize, it was the grief of having lost Robert Kennedy the year before.
For Kopechne, the assassination of RFK meant the loss of a boss and a friend, but for Ted, it meant the loss of yet another brother and, subsequently, the loss of safety, confidence, and certainty. Politicians are celebrities in so many regards, especially when it comes to how we as a public tend to dehumanize and judge them for what they have or have not done for us lately. What makes Chappaquiddick so successful as a film is its attempt to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, humanizing a politician who was the last in line – or, as his relationship with his patriarch (Bruce Dern), implies, the last resort – for contemporary American political royalty. Wanted or not, the expectations of the Kennedy name and dynasty were not lost or diluted in the slightest with the loss of John or Robert; they were instead simply transferred to the shoulders of Ted, whose willingness and ability to handle them are both called into question in the film.
“I’m not going to be president,” Ted states to his cousin and best friend, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), en route to confessing to causing Kopechne’s death. Within the context of the conversation about the Kennedy name that has come before it, the meaning of that comment is chillingly vague: is he lamenting that the scandal will be a hurdle he can’t clear, or is he relieved that the yoke of leadership can now be removed from his shoulders? This ambiguity is played with great effectiveness by Jason Clarke, who not only wears a New England accent comfortably, but also admirably embodies the dichotomy of a man trying to differentiate between what he believes to be right and what he believes to be duty. While he’ll play one scene with the assured confidence of a Kennedy by birth, another will be played with the waffling consternation of someone who’s a Kennedy in name only.
Whether trying to decide his own fate or getting caught up in the political and legal tide instigated by the gravity of Ted’s father, Clarke never succumbs to overacting nor does he allow too many of his character’s cracks to show. It’s a focused and measured performance, without which the film would entirely fall apart because of how little concern it has for showiness or condemnation. Its interest in tearing down political legacy seems to be bipartisan – or, at the very least, politically agnostic – existing to show that powerful people are still people and immensely complex ones at that.
What keeps Chappaquiddick from being as resonant emotionally as it is intellectually is the relationship that exists at its core. While the monochrome army of suits compel Kennedy to act in his best interest, it’s Joe Gargan who is supposed to be coaxing the honor out of him. Gargan has to be the heart of the film, but Helms seems entirely out of place in this dramatic role, his dialogue coming across as more a recitation of lines than as emotions truly felt and deserved. Without this emotional core, there is a clinical feel to events that the film can’t fully transcend. What results is a piece that is intellectually fascinating and largely well-acted, but one that also won’t find much resonance beyond an audience that was already engaged out of historical or political curiosity. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” says Chappaquiddick. “And absent is the heart,” I would add.