On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy and campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne left a party on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, heading into darkness in Kennedy’s car. There was no question that the car ended up overturned in shallow water with Kopechne trapped inside, or that Kennedy waited 10 hours to report the accident. It was the tragic end of a promising life for Kopechne and the end of any presidential hopes for the senator.
Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, Apex Entertainment, in association with DMG Entertainment released the film Chappaquiddick to theaters this April. This riveting suspense drama picturizes the events surrounding the tragic death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a bright, aspiring political strategist.
This movie, which gets behind the scenes to reveal the truth of these events, features Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby) as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara (The Martian) as Mary Jo Kopechne. The cast also includes Ed Helms (The Office), Jim Gaffigan (The Jim Gaffigan Show), Clancy Brown (Billions), Taylor Nichols (The Last Tycoon), Olivia Thirlby (Goliath), and Oscar-nominee Bruce Dern (The Hateful Eight).
This movie is based on true accounts, documented in the inquest (a judicial inquiry to ascertain the facts relating to an incident, such as a death) from the investigation in 1969. From these facts from true accounts, director John Curran and writers Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen, intimately expose the broad reach of political power, the influence of America’s most celebrated family; and the vulnerability of Ted Kennedy, the youngest son, in the shadow of his family legacy.
Screenwriters for this film, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, state, “When we set out to write it, we made very clear to ourselves that we didn’t want to make a conspiracy movie, that we wanted to make a character study about Ted Kennedy, and so that was how we wanted to approach telling a story was through Ted Kennedy’s perspective.”
“As a human being, he’s so under-explored in cinematic terms,” Allen says, pointing to films like 1991’s JFK and 2006’s Bobby that have explored the older Kennedys’ lives. “Once you start looking into who Ted was, all roads lead to Chappaquiddick. There’s a younger audience that will really have their eyes opened. For me, Ted is definitely the most relatable of the Kennedy family, and in his youth, he was the black sheep of the sons. The press covering him in the 1940s and ’50s referred to him he as the ‘overweight’ Kennedy. He was expelled from Harvard for cheating on a Spanish exam, which created a rift with his father. Moments like these humanize him. That’s why he struggled so much to do the right thing in this situation.”
But instead of writing a biopic, Allen and Logan decided to focus on this critical week in Kennedy’s life with its historical backdrop. At this time, the country had seen the back-to-back assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 and Bobby Kennedy in June 1968. Ted was at his brother’s side the night he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Mary Jo Kopechne too had worked on his Bobby’s presidential campaign.
For contrasting historical context, in July of 1969, the country watched the Apollo 11 space mission on TV, which fulfilled JFK’s promise to take America to the moon. Just two days after Ted left Kopechne to die in shallow water, Neil Armstrong planted a flag on the lunar surface.
Always living in the shadow of his two more successful older brothers and now the last political hope of the Kennedy family, Ted believed that winning the presidency was his chance to redeem his brothers’ and family’s legacies, as well as securing his own. However, these desires were spectacularly and tragically stopped one fatal night in the darkness due to Ted’s own choices and behavior.
Allen and Logan decided that the best way to tell the story was to go back to the 1970 Edgartown, Massachusetts Court inquest (“It’s the Rosetta stone for every book that’s been written,” Allen explains), after which Ted was only given a two-month suspended jail sentence!
“We never wanted this to be a conspiracy movie,” Logan says. “We pulled from objective facts to lay the groundwork—no insinuation, no innuendo, but the real truth,” adds Allen. “That’s why our collaboration with director John Curran was so successful because we shared that passion for fact-finding.”
But their obsession with including all of the pertinent details had to be tamed. “We thought that every detail was rich and important,” Logan explains, adding, “Our first draft was 196 pages long. It was a beast. We had to chisel away to get to the heart of the story.”
Apex Entertainment’s Mark Ciardi, whose company fully financed the production and acquired the script from DMG Entertainment in 2015, says the many layers of the Chappaquiddick story are what make it relatable today. “It does feel uniquely current right now, even though the story happened in 1969,” Ciardi says. “You wonder how Ted managed to avoid jail time. Who are all of these loyal people assembled to help save his career? It really plays like a thriller, particularly for younger audiences who aren’t familiar with the story.”
Sonoma Christian Home has a fascinating, insightful, exclusive interview with producer Mark Ciardi
(The Miracle Season, Invincible, Secretariat, The Rookie, McFarland USA… and former major league pitcher). SCH Editor At Large Dr. Diane Howard reports.
DH: How is this movie relevant for today?
MC: It deals with abuse of power and gives a voice to the voiceless.
DH: How do we learn through this movie?
MC: Ed in the movie is the moral compass.
DH: In what way does this story address flaws or Achilles heels in leaders?
MC: It addresses problems with abuse of power and putting oneself in potentially dangerous situations.
DH: What is a significant flaw in Ted?
MC: Especially in the final scene we see that Ted sees himself as a victim.
DH: What can we learn from history?
MC: History repeats itself. There are consequences for our actions.
DH: How did the father, Joe Kennedy, affect his sons?
MC: He had political aspirations himself that did not materialize for himself that he bestowed on his sons only to see these ambitions not fully materialize in them.
DH: What does the final scene between Ted and his father alone say about the men?
MC: Joe is disgusted with Ted and says that he will never become great. Tortured Ted hugs Joe, nonetheless, showing that he has an intense desire to please his father. In this scene, Ted is saying good-bye to his father.
DH: What do we learn about the danger of political spin?
MC: We must each read between lines, seek Truth, and have a rational sense of right and wrong.
DH: What is an especially significant universal theme in this movie?
MC: The end does not justify the means.
DH: How did you want to tell this story?
MC: We did not want to editorialize but just tell the emotional story based on the facts.
Ciardi, who acquired the script, says of director John Curran, “I’ve always been a fan of John’s…. so I wanted to get the script to him. He responded to the material, and we saw eye-to-eye on the approach. We both really wanted this to take a neutral, nonpartisan view of the story so that the audience can take what they want from it. We didn’t pick a side.”
Curran, like Allen and Logan who consider Chappaquiddick a character study, says, “The main thing for me was to make Ted human, not have him be a cipher for a political point of view. Chappaquiddick is a parable based on truth… We did it as honestly as possible.”
Jason Clarke, who embodies Ted Kennedy, says after reading the screenplay, says, “I remember finishing it and thinking, I think I’ve just read something quite extraordinary, like truly profound. I was very shocked and like angry is the right word about, you know, the events and what happened…The strength of the film lies in watching this man’s moral choice…and how he came about to decide to do what he did…”
Kate Mara was cast as Kopechne. The Mary Jo character was important to Allen and Logan, who addressed her accomplishments in the script. Logan says. “We wanted people to know how bright she was and what a promising future she had. If the audience could fall in love with her, then after she’s gone her presence is still felt.”.
To round out the rest of the cast, Curran had two comedic American actors Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan. Curran says, “The script has a very specific tone that spans tragedy to dark comedy, and balancing that tone was always going to be one of the biggest challenges…”
In working to tell an authentic story, Ciardi and Curran wanted to get the historical details correct for the look of the film, so that meant filming in the Chappaquiddick location. Production shot the ferry, the road and the bridge in Chappaquiddick, as well as the North Shore of Boston. “There’s such a specificity about where this story took place, and you have to re-create that,” Curran says. “I wanted the character of the environment to be authentic. When you go out there and see Chappaquiddick, you’re struck by how remote and how dark it is.”
Chappaquiddick is one of the best dramatic, political exposes since the original All the King’s Men and Frost v. Nixon. It’s written, directed and produced with an understated clarity about the tragic and defining Chappaquiddick events for Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy and his associates.
These critical events at Chappaquiddick began when Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy and his friends traveled to Martha’s Vineyard for the annual regatta in 1969. They went to a beach house where some of Ted’s political team and young female campaign workers were gathered. Ted, married to Joan who was not there, took attractive Mary Jo Kopechne on a drive to look at the stars. Drunkenly, Ted drove the car off a bridge into the water. He left the accident scene where Mary Jo slowly died while trapped inside the car. Afterward, Ted’s team worked to spin, cover, and whitewash clear evidence. Ted wrestled with the truth and caving in to family and associate pressures.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” George Santayana
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