When a scriptwriter wishes to depict a character having a crisis of conscience, he or she may (perhaps if they’re in a hurry and want to beat the weekend traffic) revert to the well-worn device of having an angel and a devil perched on each shoulder arguing ever-more-vehemently about the Right Thing To Do. While this doesn’t occur in the just-released “Chappaquiddick,” one can easily imagine the metaphorical pair having a knock-down, drag-out on the shoulders of Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), as he tries to figure out the best course of action. Here, it’s the morning after, and after having consumed mass quantities of alcohol, driven off a bridge on the Martha Vineyard’s isle after a party, and left his passenger, campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) to die, it’s time to face reality (as the movie soundtrack puts it for those who aren’t paying close attention). Or is it?
We’ve all seen this story before onscreen – (in fact, I did last week when I watched last year’s Oscar-nominated “I, Tonya,”). A character manages to make a really colossal screw-up, the kind which definitely won’t vanish regardless of what you do or who you are. He confesses to his friends (Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan) who respond with a mixture of horror and pleas for him to come clean. However, the surname of the character changes everything. Jason is the last surviving son of an illustrious New England political clan who has been plagued for years with the kind of bad luck that would still rate a mention in pop songs a century later (see Vampire Weekend’s “Diane Young”). This means that simply having achieved the position of a Massachusetts Senator isn’t adequate, and his father (Bruce Dern), now wheelchair bound after a stroke) would really, really like Jason to run for President eventually.
So as the Vineyard authorities answer the report that there’s a dead body of a pretty young woman, plus a semi-submerged car in the water, Jason makes some belated stabs at decency by phoning Kate’s family (though he’s not sure how her last name is spelled). He confesses to his father, then attempts damage control – with the help of a granite-faced political spin team whose dialogue is liberally laced with black humor. (Jason may possibly have let his license expire to compound things.) One course of action is to pretend Jason has concussion – although as the media points out, this doesn’t appear to affect his ability to crane his head around at Kate’s funeral to see who has arrived. Another – and this is the one that will put him at odds with childhood friend Ed – is to resign. Fortunately, all this occurs during the Summer of ’69 when Armstrong lands on the moon, so as one character puts it, that’s the best timing one could hope for in a situation like this.
“Chappaquiddick” is basically “I, Tonya” if you changed the main characters from working class stiffs to blue-blooded New Englanders and gave them the ability to frostily inform the media that they will release a statement later that week, thank you very much while they’re being hounded. In both movies, characters offer their thoughts on truth, and they are strikingly similar. The fates of those who can’t paper over their crimes with privilege are a lot different, though. Tonya Harding was excommunicated from the skating world and became a “lady boxer,” while Kennedy went on to run for President. But as the movie points out, Kennedy never really wanted to do this, so in one way, excess privilege is a cage, too.