Politics

Ted Kennedy's 'Darkest Hour' Hits the Big Screen

"Chappaquiddick" recounts how he got away with leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to suffocate in his submerged car.

Michael Swartz · Apr. 2, 2018

If it weren’t for a missed turn on a dark night, Ted Kennedy may well have been president during the 1970s. Instead, the nation was rocked in the summer of 1969 by yet another tragedy involving the Kennedy family, and that accident has become the subject of a new movie to be released Friday simply called “Chappaquiddick.”

A few years back, Mark Alexander summed up the accident on that fateful summer night in 1969:

On the night of 18 July, Kennedy left a party [on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island] with an attractive young intern en route to a private secluded beach on the far side of Dike Bridge. Kennedy lost control on the single-lane bridge and his vehicle overturned in the shallow tidal water.

Kennedy freed himself from the vehicle, leaving his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, to suffocate in an air pocket inside the overturned car. Nine hours later, after sobering up and conferring with political advisors and lawyers, Kennedy called authorities to report the incident. Kopechne’s body had already been discovered.

To produce the new film about that fateful night, the creative team of writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, director John Curran, and Kennedy portrayer Jason Clarke leaned heavily on a 763-page inquest released the year following Kopechne’s death. This decision confines the narrative to the short time period between the night of the accident and Kennedy’s nationally televised mea culpa a few days later after he received nothing more than a suspended sentence from a local judge for leaving the scene of an accident.

So while critic Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter laments that Allen and Logan “have done their homework in organizing the material but haven’t brought an argument to the table that might have zapped the film to life,” others analyzing the film are relieved that the treatment of Kennedy wasn’t overly dramatic.

Director Curran contends that the perspective on the film will vary with one’s politics. “I realize that in this climate a viewer’s reaction to the film will be largely based on the political prism they watch it through. In that sense I endeavored to strike a very non-partisan, factual tone.” But that’s a bit of a cop-out, because the major facts of the story aren’t in dispute. As we have often said over the years, Kopechne’s life was snuffed out and Ted Kennedy spent the rest of his life trying to live down his decision to flee the scene. (As CNN put it to the derision of many Twitter followers, Chappaquiddick was “one of” Kennedy’s darkest hours.) We learned that the “Lion of the Senate” was cowardly when it most counted.

Because this incident was nearly a half-century ago and practically all of the major characters have passed away, it’s a wonder Chappaquiddick the movie was ever made at all. It did bring out the excuse to retell the Kopechne side by replaying a 1991 interview with a family member, but this morality tale reminds us of a bygone era where secrets could be kept secret.

As the reviewer McCarthy notes, “It’s impossible to watch this film without imagining how such an incident would be covered today; very likely, the young woman would not have died had there been cellphones, as she was apparently still alive in the submerged car for at least two hours, maybe three or four. But even more astounding was Ted Kennedy’s not reporting the incident for 10 hours, then the fact that a story that otherwise would have provided endless headlines became an afterthought when the first moon landing took place two days later.”

No one is expecting great things from this movie; in fact, it was bumped back from an original plan for a limited release late last year at a time when award-seeking movies are put out. But it is a reminder about how bad decisions can last a lifetime, even when you’re in a position where they can be covered up. While Ted Kennedy died in 2009 still in office as the senior senator from Massachusetts — having been re-elected seven times after the accident — the 1980 Democrat primary season was the closest he ever came to the presidential brass ring. Despite winning 12 states in the process, Kennedy was soundly beaten by Jimmy Carter at the Democrat convention, finally conceding the nomination there.

If Ted Kennedy were made of sterner stuff, maybe he would have freed Mary Jo Kopechne and the incident would have been soon forgotten, or even spun into an act of heroism guaranteeing a return to Camelot in the 1972 or 1976 presidential election. Whatever the results would have been for the nation, that’s surely a version of life’s movie Mary Jo’s grieving family would have preferred.

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