The True Story Behind 'Chappaquiddick' Is Still Much Of A Mystery, But What's Known Is Devastating
As the youngest sibling of the Kennedy family, Ted Kennedy didn't escape the shadow of tragedy that also fell over brothers John, Bobby, and Joseph — he just happened to survive it. A new movie Chappaquiddick reexamines the moment that haunted the politician's entire life, even after a 40+ year career as "Lion of the Senate" — a car crash, a woman dead, lives ruined. The true story behind Chappaquiddick may never be fully known, but its namesake film takes a tougher look at the man who walked away from it.
At the time of the 1969 car crash, the Kennedys were a political dynasty at that point, with patriarch Joe having leveraged power and money accrued through legal, if potentially sketchy, means into a political career. Determined his sons should follow the same path, he pushed them all towards politics. Oldest son Joe Jr. died in WWII, and John and Bobby's political careers are well known, as are their sudden, terrible ends. In 1969, a year after Bobby's assassination, Ted had become the youngest Senate Majority Whip to hold the position and was expected to announce a 1972 presidential run, something those around him say Ted both wanted and felt terribly conflicted and afraid about, as the movie recounts.
Chappaquiddick begins the day of July 18, 1969, with Ted (Jason Clarke), heading to Martha's Vineyard for an annual regatta. These are facts: the Kennedys owned a house on adjacent island Chappaquiddick, where that evening Ted hosted a party, a reunion of sorts for "The Boiler Room Girls," a group of young women who put a great deal of effort and work into Bobby's campaign. The movie suggests that Ted spent most of the evening talking to his late brother's secretary, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), who was so devastated by Bobby's death she left Washington, D.C. altogether. Ted tried to get her to come back.
Fact: at approximately 11:15pm, Ted announced he was leaving the party. According to his testimony, Kopechne asked him to drop her off back at her hotel. So Ted requested keys from his mother's chauffeur, and he and Kopechne left. The next morning, two fishermen saw a submerged car in a tidal channel and notified the nearby residents, who immediately called the police. At 8:55am, the car was extracted, with Kopechne's body found inside.
As to what happened in between these moments, Chappaquiddick spins a dark picture of events, where a woman's life came distant second to political spin and damage control. Prior to the accident, a cop comes up to the car to see if help is needed, but Ted zips away, due to the fact that he's intoxicated and, as a famous married man, doesn't want to risk being seen alone with a young woman in this situation. The darkness is a distraction, and Ted, seemingly accidentally, drives his car off the then-barrierless Dike Point bridge.
His first move after escaping and swimming to shore in this account is to walk back to the cottage, up to his friend, cousin, and lawyer Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and say, "We've got a problem." The problem, it seems, is potential damage to Ted's presidential run, which is also why he delays telling anyone about the accident; reporting means police testing for blood alcohol level, and the film paints the delay as a deliberate wait for that number to go down.
Most damning, the movie suggests that had Ted reported earlier, Kopechne might be alive. The position she was found in, as well as the opinion of the captain of the rescue unit that retrieved her body, was that Kopenchne didn't die from drowning or injuries. She died from suffocation, her air running out as the car she remained trapped in slowly filled with water. To make the tragedy even worse, as Chappaquiddick shows, more attention was paid to the damage control Ted used instead of Kopenchne's life and untimely death. The right people were allegedly pressured, reporting was allegedly held off, and a doctor who never even examined Ted declared he had a concussion, as Ted said in a televised statement.
No matter what actually happened, the fact is that Ted never faced real repercussions. He was found guilty of leaving the scene of a crime (for which he received two months, suspended). An inquest into Kopechne's death (held in secret at the request of Ted's lawyers) led to probable cause under Massachusetts law; presiding judge Judge James A. Boyle could have issued an arrest warrant, but didn't. Kennedy went on to have a long and fruitful legal career, though this "blemish" prevented him from ever running for president.
In an interview for the Edward Kennedy Institute, Nance Lyons, one of the Boiler Room Girls and Kopechne's roommate, said that the women from Chappaquiddick suffered personal and professional repercussions due to the way the accident was handled. "[We] were portrayed as girls of no significance—even as party girls. It was humiliating—but no one bothered to set the record straight," said Lyons. She claimed that Ted never once reached out to see how she was doing, despite her office being 10 feet away from his. She eventually left Washington, D.C. for New York.
Chappaquiddick shows a man who never expected to be held accountable for his actions, and the political and social power that reinforced him. The collateral damage in the decades that followed is left to history.