‘Chappaquiddick’ Survives And Occasionally Thrives Thanks To An Understated And Strong Leading Performance

It’s kind of amazing to watch scandal play out, away from the 24 hour news cycle that we have become so accustom to.

Chappaquiddick is a solid yet somewhat underwhelming thriller at the lengths that those in power will go to in order side step the law and the willingness of the public to go along with it all well before the age of the 24 hour news cycle and the complexities that social media bring into all aspects of public life.

It’s the scandal that took its final pound of flesh from America’s first family as a young Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) a rising star in the US Senate and the final member of America’s first family looking for their place in the halls of power, until that one fateful night.  While driving with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) their car loses control and heads off of a bridge, resulting in her death.  Not only did this event take the life of an aspiring political strategist and Kennedy insider, but it ultimately changed the course of presidential history forever. Through true accounts, documented in the inquest from the investigation in 1969 this film intimately exposes the broad reach of political power, the influence of America’s most celebrated family; and the vulnerability of Ted Kennedy, the youngest son, in the shadow of his family legacy.

While it’s admittedly got some pacing problems and suffers from some questionable casting Chappaquiddick actually manages to thrive thanks to a strong and fascinating lead performance that actually draws some parallels with stories coming out of the modern news cycle.

The hook is just so darn understated and effective in all this, and that’s why it works.  Director John Curran along with writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan (first time writers, but industry veterans and also executive producers on the film) give us something subtle and understated that makes it quietly insidious rather than over the top and shocking.  The film plays on the soft beats to remind us that we’ve become far too complacent from a societal standpoint as we let powerful people simply do whatever they want.  Curran moves the narrative along well but while the scandal plays out effectively with all these unsuspecting loyalists going down the rabbit hole with him the overall story could have used some more character development outside of the key players in this corruptly macabre tale of entitlement that is masterfully anchored by its leading man.

In the past, Jason Clarke has always been a steady and reliable hand in any movie that he’s been cast but he’s never really screamed leading man, at least up until this point.  Inhabiting the sleazy and uncertain skin of Ted Kennedy could have really been done in an over the top fashion, but to his credit that is kept in check with a performance that is light on accent but heavy on moral ineptitude as he tries to play the big man and find the moral high ground in an environment that is still dominated by his overbearing father Jack Sr, played by Bruce Dern in a quite yet effective turn.  However outside of Ed Helms as one of the few voices of reason and right in his life as Joe Gargan the rest of the characters in this story are woefully underdeveloped, and this is an ensemble with the likes of Kate Mara, Joe Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols and Olivia Thirlby.  Lots of quality talent goes to waste in roles that could have fleshed out the narrative and made everything a lot juicer over all.

Ultimately at the end of the day, I can’t really say if Chappaquiddick stays true to the overall facts of the case but thanks to a very good leading man performance and some solid direction it allows itself to get under our collective skin rather then hit us over the head with overt drama and scandal.