As the events of the film begin, these questions of the future can be momentarily set aside in favor of a Massachusetts good ol’ boy regatta. Teddy competes with childhood friend Joe Gargin (Ed Helms) but he ignores Gargan’s advice about caution and they lose the race. Unbowed by the loss, Teddy and his staff celebrate with the female veterans of Bobby’s campaign, which include Kopechne (Kate Mara). An inebriated Teddy takes Kopechne for a drive, only for their car to end up upside down in the water. He escapes and calls Gargan and fellow friend and US Attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), both of whom tell Teddy to call the police. He says he will, but he instead makes his way back to his hotel, making sure that the staff see him before going to bed. In the morning, the crash site is discovered, and news of Kopechne’s death interrupts Teddy’s brunch. The Kennedy machine quickly swings into motion as an A-list public relations team pulls Teddy out of the lion’s jaws despite his blundering attempts to stay within them.
Curran depicts the incident in painstaking detail that foregrounds the agony of Kopechne’s death. While Teddy is pacing his hotel room and simulating drowning in his bathtub, Curran cuts back to a not-drowned Kopechne, struggling for hours to stay in an air pocket while trapped in the car. Mara is heartbreaking here, showcasing a desperate will to live that was insufficient without any form of outside help. For Teddy, the indecision is damning, even as Clarke is doing all he can to visually explain the stress and panic of his mental state. One never knows how they’ll react in a crisis until a crisis arises, but it’s hard to imagine reacting as badly and counter-productively as Teddy does. While no autopsy was ever done and it remains unknown if Kopechne died quickly of drowning or slowly from suffocation, the film definitively suggests that police divers could have easily saved Kopechne if they were called, as has been asserted by professionals at the scene.
In the immediate aftermath, Teddy is shown to be paralyzed and terrified of what’s happened, but that quickly morphs into a need to spin the event using all the power at his disposal. At first, this means the weight of his name to compel the local police into deference, and, as he reveals himself to be outmatched by the requirements of the incident, it means drawing on his father’s vast connections. Teddy can snow his average constituent, but even confined to a wheelchair and debilitated by a stroke, Joe (Bruce Dern) commands the respect from Teddy’s peers that he’s incapable of inspiring. The PR team, led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), refer to the son as Teddy, and the now-speechless father as Mr. Kennedy.
These damage-control scenes bear Allen’s stamp as Chappaquidick turns into a farce. Formerly a member of the Simpson’s animation and editing team, Allen surely spent time with the character of Mayor Quimby, a naked imitation of Kennedy largesse, and learned how to execute strong political satire. The Machiavellian PR team’s maneuverings are shown to be precise in their purpose of making this all go away as painlessly as possible, but the person they’re trying to help is an idiot too prideful to do what he’s told. Their united opposition to his harebrained suggestions provide this tragedy with some real laughs, especially as Teddy enters the realm of absurdity with the introduction of an unprescribed neck brace, a comic prop that no one but him is in favor of. The level that he is operating on regresses further, as he takes time out of planning to fly a kite on the Hyannis Port beach or turn the channel from the news to Davey and Goliath. He’s in sharp contrast to McNamara et al who are busy sending Kennedy stooges to ‘comfort’ the Kopechne family but who are actually there to ensure no autopsy is done, or clearing up Teddy’s driving record and putting him in front of friendly judges.
As a recreation of a specific, dramatic event in US political history, Chappaquidick can’t help but fill in gaps with interactions that probably happened but no one but the participants will ever know what was said. Discussions, or more accurately, monologues from Teddy to Joe are where Curran stumbles and engages in a pop psychology of his protagonist. These imaginings don’t have the weight of the PR team’s boiler room sessions, or of Gargan’s disillusionment with the family. The former can see only the job they’ve been assigned, while the latter can see the life at the center of the incident, an incompatible view that didn’t stop Kennedy from serving another four decades in the Senate. The film might have been better served to move away from Kennedy in its second half and towards Gargan, as he’s the character who makes the most recognizable and decent choice. The entire affair ultimately boils down to what the voters are willing to look past. McNamara can see a deed that’s over and wonders what good self-flagellation will do to a potentially weighty career, while Gargan judges Teddy as unworthy of representing a mass of people if this is how he’s going to treat one of them. The voters side with McNamara. The film has been contested by Kennedy adherents, but only inasmuch as they insist he felt terrible about Kopechne for as long as he lived. Whether or not that’s comforting to her family is an open question. B