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REAL TO REEL

March 25, 2018 GMT

Nearly a half-century since Wyoming Valley native Mary Jo Kopechne died when presidential hopeful Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy drove his car into a Chappaquiddick Island waterway, the tragedy is hitting the big screen. “Chappaquiddick,” a movie touted as “the untold true story” about the sensational 1969 case involving a member of America’s political royalty, opens in theaters across the country April 6. Kopechne’s surviving relatives recently attended a private screening at Movies 14 in Wilkes-Barre. They think the filmmakers did a tremendous job — particularly showing the world who Kopechne was and where she came from, they say. “It’s nice to see the focus now isn’t only on Ted Kennedy, but it has shifted toward Mary Jo. If you show who Mary Jo was, the tragedy becomes even more compounded. We lost a very bright star that night,” said William Nelson, 46, a cousin who was born after Kopechne died and spent his life researching the case. Kopechne, 28, was an up-and-coming Washington political operative who worked tirelessly on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign before his assassination and was being recruited to help Ted Kennedy’s quest to become president like his brother, John F. Kennedy. Nelson and his mother, Georgette Potoski, 75, of Plymouth, who was a first cousin and a close friend of Kopechne, released a book “Our Mary Jo” in 2015 using sympathy cards and other photos they inherited after Kopechne’s parents died. Authentic portrayals After Kennedy’s 1967 Oldsmobile plunged into the Martha’s Vineyard waterway on July 18, 1969, he escaped the vehicle, left the scene and didn’t report the crash for nearly 10 hours. It’s believed Kopechne didn’t drown, but found an air pocket in the submerged car and suffocated to death after several hours. Potoski said Jason Clarke, the actor who plays Kennedy, did a great job. “He walks a fine line of being despicable and being weak,” Potoski said. Nelson agreed. “It doesn’t look like it’s a character playing Ted Kennedy,” Nelson said. “It seems like you are watching Ted Kennedy.” Kennedy, who claimed he panicked after several attempts to dive in the water to rescue Kopechne, quickly pleaded guilty to a minor fleeing the scene charge and received no prison time. He never became president, but remained in office as senator until his death at age 77 in August 2009. Kopechne’s funeral was held at St. Vincent’s Church in Plymouth and attended by Kennedy, who was wearing a neck brace. She was laid to rest in the parish cemetery in Larksville. Time hasn’t changed Potoski’s feelings on Kennedy. In some ways, the movie made her disgust escalate — visualizing Kopechne’s slow death as she was trapped in the submerged car. “Am I angry? It’s 50 years, but I still am,” Potoski said. The granddaughter of two coal miners from Luzerne County, Kopechne helped craft and type the speech her political idol Robert Kennedy delivered in March 1968 announcing his bid for the presidency. He was assassinated several months later, a crushing moment in Kopechne’s life. The July 1969 retreat that brought Kopechne to Chappaquiddick was billed as a small reunion for Robert Kennedy’s former staffers. The opening of the book Potoski and Nelson wrote about Kopechne is about a conversation Potoski and Kopechne had on a beach in Pensacola, Florida, talking about Kopechne’s dreams for the future. The movie similarly opens with Kopechne and friends on a beach on Chappaquiddick Island talking about hopes for the future. Nelson and Potoski sent multiple copies of the book to the movie’s writers, director and producer. They must have read carefully, because the portrayal of Kopechne and some real-life situations was spot on, they said. Questions remain Much of the movie is based off testimony from a coroner’s inquest into the case, which depicted everything that happened before the crash and after. But what led to the crash and how Kennedy reacted have always remained a mystery. Kopechne’s parents died — Joseph in 2003 and Gwen in 2007 — believing justice was never served in Kopechne’s case, Potoski and Nelson say. Nelson and Potoski, who have been interviewed by media from all over the world, said the movie idea was started by a rookie writer who never heard about the “Chappaquiddick incident,” how Kopechne was left to die, until he stumbled upon it on the internet. “He said the whole thing kept eating at him. He said he felt obligated to write this screenplay,” Nelson said. Likewise, many young relatives in the Kopechne family didn’t truly understand the case until they sat in on the private screening. “It has appalled this generation as it has appalled the generations before,” Nelson said. Contact the writer: bkalinowski@citizensvoice.com 570-821-2055, @cvbobkal on Twitter