"Chappaquiddick" attempts to peel back the many layers of Ted Kennedy, offering an intimate look into the mind and soul of the late senator as he dealt with his infamous 1969 scandal.
The new drama, which opens in theaters on April 6, is far from being a flattering portrayal of the Boston-born politician, who often comes across on screen as cold, hubristic and even bumbling. While there are moments where Kennedy, played by Jason Clarke, seems genuinely remorseful over his role in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), those are quickly overshadowed by the many instances in the film where his naked political ambition appear to trump his sense of morality.
Beyond his fears of hurting his career and family name, Kennedy's sheer ineptitude over making decisions also gets showcased, like in the scene where he trys (and fails) to curry people's sympathies by wearing a fake neck brace to Kopechne's funeral. When you watch moments like this, it's easy to see how Clarke felt like a cartoon character at times while playing Kennedy.
"I joked early on that there’s a bit of Homer Simpson in Ted," Clarke tells Metro. "There’s a bit of Homer Simpson in all of us, really."
'Chappaquiddick' and the legacy of Ted Kennedy
As director John Curran notes, though, the film isn't a "one-dimensional hit piece" on Kennedy, but rather a portrait of the late senator that takes a deep dive into his machinations and thought processes as he dealt with the aftermath of Kopechne's death. The filmmaker praises the screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan as a "fair and balanced look" at the tragedy.
"It felt like the opposite of the usual Kennedy story," Curran says. "Still a damning portrait, but I thought the way they handled it was a pretty exciting opportunity."
Considering Kennedy's later work as a champion on issues like civil rights, education and health, Curran felt conflicted working on this project. However, he admits that the stain of what happened in Chappaquiddick can never be erased.
"He had an incredible second act," Curran says. "That doesn’t happen very often for politicians that come through something like this."
"He never outlived Chappaquiddick," he adds. "That haunted him for the rest of his career."
Thanks to the rise of Donald Trump, the world of politics has changed dramatically since the Chappaquiddick incident. While Curran believes that the media would be "a feeding frenzy" if this scandal happened to Kennedy today, it's hard to say whether it would've completely curtailed his presidential aspirations.
As the film shows, there was still a groundswell of support by many Democrats for Kennedy to make a run at the White House. And when Trump can joke about shooting people in the street and still end up in the Oval Office, who's to say that Kennedy couldn't have overcome Chappaquiddick in today's political climate?
What it comes down to is the power of bases and its members being willing to amplify or overlook a candidate's faults depending on where they fall on the political spectrum.
"When [Trump] said that 'I can shoot someone on Fifth Ave.,' for us, it was shocking," Curran says. "I think his base would support him. What he’s finally revealed is that it’s like Boston Red Sox fans vs. Yankees fans – there’s nothing that’s going to make you become a Yankees fan if you live in Boston and vice versa."
Clarke believes that this partisan approach has framed how people look back on Kennedy's legacy and his actions in Chappaquiddick.
"One side says [the Chappaquiddick incident is] the ultimate example of left hypocrisy, the other side just doesn’t want to go anywhere near it because they don’t know how to explain it," Clarke says. "History’s still coming down on this and there’s no way to look at it as if those choices were good."
"Chappaquiddick" opens in theaters April 6.