I admit that I approached “Chappaquiddick” with a measure of skepticism and a tremor of dread. The ongoing, morbid fascination with all things Kennedy is an aspect of American culture I find perplexing and somewhat dispiriting. Compulsive Kennedyism encourages our unfortunate habit of substituting mythology for history, of dissolving the complexities of American political life into airy evocations of idealism and tragedy. The lives and deaths of Kennedy family members provide grist for endless conspiracy theorizing, tabloid salaciousness, celebrity-worship and superstition. A movie about one of the sadder, tawdrier episodes in the saga could only feed this syndrome.
But it turns out that “Chappaquiddick,” directed by John Curran from a script by the first-timers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, is more diagnosis than symptom. Forsaking sensationalism for sober, procedural storytelling, the film examines the toxic effects of the Kennedy mystique on a handful of people involved in a fatal car crash in the summer of 1969.
The basic facts are hardly obscure. Late on the night of July 18, an Oldsmobile driven by Senator Edward M. Kennedy ran off a bridge on an island near Martha’s Vineyard and plunged into a pond. Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide to the senator’s brother Robert, died inside the car. Kennedy waited until the next day to report the incident and provided an account that was, to put it mildly, less than fully credible.
Exactly what happened remains unknown, and the gaps and ambiguities in the record provide the filmmakers with room for speculation and embellishment. (A recent article by Jenna Russell in The Boston Globe performs a sensitive and thorough fact-check.) In this version, Kopechne (played by Kate Mara) stays alive while trapped in the car, fighting for air as Kennedy (Jason Clarke) dawdles. Nothing beyond a close collegial friendship between them is implied. They were drawn together by shared grief over the death of Robert Kennedy, who had been assassinated the year before, and left a party together for a heart-to-heart talk.
The test that “Chappaquiddick” sets for itself is not accuracy but plausibility. Whether or not events actually unfolded this way, the story the film tells is an interesting and complicated character study, with something to say about the corrosive effects of power and privilege on both the innocent and the guilty.
At the center is Kennedy himself, whom Mr. Clarke plays as a decent, thoughtful man never quite comfortable in his own skin. That is partly because he has been denied possession of an independent identity. The last surviving Kennedy son, Ted lives in the shadow of his three dead brothers, Joseph, John and Robert. His weekend of sailing and party-going coincides with the Apollo 11 moon landing, a reminder of John Kennedy’s legacy and of Ted’s inadequacy.