‘Chappaquiddick’ avoids Ted Kennedy-Mary Jo Kopechne crash conspiracy theories, partisan politics

April 21, 2018 GMT

The producer of “Chappaquiddick” took an unusual approach in making the film by deliberately avoiding conspiratorial excess and partisan fury.

“It’s a piece of history. You can’t worry about the politics,” said producer Mark Ciardi. “We just present the facts as we know them. It’s supposed to make you think and feel conflicted.”

He expressed confidence that audiences won’t view the film as a hit job on Democrats in general or the Kennedys in particular.

“Everybody on the movie is more liberal in their leanings,” Mr. Ciardi said, noting that the film’s director, John Curran, has long admired the legacy of the late Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy.

“Chappaquiddick,” which opens Friday, reconstructs the 1969 car accident and its aftermath that left 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne dead and Kennedy’s political career in jeopardy. Australian actor Jason Clarke embodies a craven Kennedy foundering amid a moral quandary and vainly attempting damage control by donning a fake neck brace at Kopechne’s funeral.


Focused squarely on the facts, the film ignores rumors of a dalliance between Kennedy and Kopechne or that she was pregnant at the time of the accident. (Conspiracy theorists note that no autopsy was performed on Kopechne’s body.) Like many modern news stories, the tragedy in Chappaquiddick has fed much supposition and speculation.

“Everyone has a different opinion on what happened that night. ... There’s all these different conspiracy theories,” Mr. Ciardi said. “We tried not to be swayed in any way by them.”

Instead, the film production relied heavily on a 1970 inquest by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to guide its retelling of the tale. That left the film’s creative team to imagine conversations behind closed doors at the Kennedy compound in the days after the crash.

The writers knew that the senator called the family compound three times in the hours after the incident. That inspired a chilling sequence featuring Bruce Dern, playing patriarch Joe Kennedy. The stroke-stricken elder croaks out “Alibi” to his last surviving son hours after the accident.

Early “Chappaquiddick” reviews are laudatory for the evenness of the presentation. The New York Daily News sums up the consensus, describing the filmmakers’ sober approach in exploring an ugly chapter in Kennedy lore: “Those are the facts and director John Curran doesn’t try to make them any prettier. Any uglier, either, to be fair.”

The movie’s mood shifts midway as Kennedy’s inept attempt to mend and maintain his reputation takes a darkly comic turn.

“He’s almost like a child. He wants to deal with it in his own way,” Mr. Ciardi said. “It’s like a farce.”


Yet that doesn’t diminish the stakes in play in “Chappaquiddick” or the life lost on that Massachusetts island that night. Kate Mara plays Kopechne as a bright but cynical campaign strategist whom Kennedy sought for his own team. She worked on Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign before his assassination on June 5, 1968.

The events depicted in the film occurred roughly 49 years ago, but some still didn’t want “Chappaquiddick” to see the light of any movie theater.

Entertainment Studios CEO Byron Allen said his company’s film endured a form of attack that resembled the hardball tactics acted out by Mr. Clarke and company on screen.

“Unfortunately, there are some very powerful people who tried to put pressure on me not to release this movie,” Mr. Allen told Variety magazine. “They went out of their way to try and influence me in a negative way. I made it very clear that I’m not about the right, I’m not about the left. I’m about the truth.”

Mr. Ciardi said that he learned of more recent “pressure” applied to movie theater owners not to screen the film.

Box office forecasts for “Chappaquiddick” are muted for now. That could indicate a general Kennedy fatigue after dozens of projects tied in some way to “Camelot,” a cultural reference that former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy coined shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy.

It also could be the result of a lack of media coverage: Left-leaning news outlets haven’t scrambled to cover the film, the producer said.

“On the surface, it’s a Democratic icon. Folks on the left might not want to engage with it,” said Mr. Ciardi, who also produced the volleyball drama “The Miracle Season,” which opens this month.

The production team for “Chappaquiddick” did not reach out to Kennedy family members for their input on the project.

But some key players contacted the studio of their own accord. Former firefighter John Farrar, the scuba diver who extricated Kopechne’s lifeless body from Kennedy’s Oldsmobile in Poucha Pond, has said he saw signs of suffocation, not drowning meaning a pocket of air in the car had kept the young woman alive for some time.

Kennedy, who had driven the car off a bridge and escaped relatively unscathed, did not alert police about the accident until 10 hours later.

Several film festivals showcased “Chappaquiddick” last year in anticipation of a late-2017 awards season release. The studio decided to skip that competitive time for an early spring release.

More recently, the studio scheduled three screenings on Martha’s Vineyard, near the site of the tragedy.

“It’s not something [area residents] wanted to relive,” Mr. Ciardi said. “They thanked us for doing a movie like this.”