- - Thursday, March 22, 2018

The “lion of the Senate” is getting a posthumous close-up, and admirers of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy might not like what they see.

“Chappaquiddick,” in theaters April 6, recalls the 1969 car accident in which Kennedy campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne died, casting a permanent shadow over his political career.

In a popular culture that has presented the Kennedys as America’s royal family, moviegoers shouldn’t expect a hagiography replete with references to Camelot. Early reviews indicate that the film offers an unflinching, detailed examination of the senator’s serial transgressions after the accident.

“Even a few years ago, ‘Chappaquiddick’ could have never, ever been made in Hollywood. A few producers tried, and they never worked in this town again,” Howie Carr said in his review in the Boston Herald.

Australian actor Jason Clarke (“Terminator Genisys”) stars as Kennedy, the rising political star whose actions on the night of July 18, 1969, proved unbefitting of a leader, let alone a concerned citizen. The senator was driving Kopechne (Kate Mara of “Fantastic Four”) home from a party when his Oldsmobile veered off a wooden bridge into Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts.

Kennedy escaped the vehicle as it sank. Kopechne, 28, was trapped inside. Rather than trying to rescue her himself or finding help nearby, Kennedy returned to his hotel room and waited for 10 hours before contacting authorities. It later was learned that Kopechne didn’t drown: She suffocated in a pocket of air in the rear of the car after several hours.

The film depicts the accident as well as its aftermath. Kennedy used his family’s name and connections to avoid any serious repercussions from his actions or lack thereof. He even donned a faux neck brace to garner sympathy in public appearances.

Reviews from film festival critics suggest that “Chappaquiddick” would not appeal to many partisan Democrats.

Consider this sober assessment from Owen Gleiberman in Variety: “Forty-eight years later, let’s be clear on what the meaning of Chappaquiddick is. Ted Kennedy should, by all rights, have stood trial for involuntary manslaughter, which would likely have ended his political career. The fact that the Kennedy family — the original postwar dynasty of the one percent — possessed, and exerted, the influence to squash the case is the essence of what Chappaquiddick means. The Kennedys lived outside the law; the one instance in American history of an illegally stolen presidential election was the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. He in all likelihood lost the race to Richard Nixon, but his father tried to steal the election for him by manipulating the vote tallies in (among other places) Illinois. That’s the meaning of Chappaquiddick, too.”

Historian and author Michael Hart said “Chappaquiddick” might succeed at the box office but won’t dent the Kennedy clan’s legacy.

“The media has been attacking the Kennedy brand for decades and with limited success,” said Mr. Hart, noting how reporters in 1960 inaccurately attempted to paint presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s father as a bootlegger.

“Most Americans have come to accept the Kennedy clan as a flawed family,” Mr. Hart said. “Obviously, they have done many good things, and because of this, their ‘warts’ are often overlooked.”

‘I have Chappaquiddick’

Ed Morrissey, senior editor at the conservative news and opinion website HotAir.com, said a film detailing how a political dynasty functions won’t be good news to the modern Kennedy clan.

“Dynasties tend to be very defensive, very insular and able to manipulate whatever leverage they have,” Mr. Morrissey said.

One reason “Chappaquiddick” could jolt the culture is the media’s inability to fully flesh out the accident’s core details. Mr. Clarke, who portrays Kennedy, recently acknowledged that he had no idea about the true story until he became involved in the project.

“That’s why it’ll come as a surprise to actors from Australia and people who grew up in the United States,” Mr. Morrissey said of the film’s arrival. “It’s a brutal story. It should have been prosecuted and permanently disqualified Ted Kennedy from office.”

About a week after the accident, Kennedy pleaded guilty to one count of leaving the scene of an accident causing bodily injury and received a suspended sentence of two months in jail, the minimum penalty for the offense. His defense team, the prosecutors and the judge noted his unblemished reputation to justify the sentence.

“The media went along with the whole Kennedy-Camelot narrative. He basically got a free pass on it,” Mr. Morrissey said.

That doesn’t appear to be the case with “Chappaquiddick.” Here is how the Boston Herald’s Mr. Carr described one sequence in the film: “Right before his speech to the nation, Teddy tells his cousin, Joe Gargan, that all men are flawed — ‘Moses had a temper, Peter betrayed Jesus, I have Chappaquiddick.’ To which Cousin Joe replies, ‘Yeah, Moses had a temper, but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.’”

Jeff McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, said a big-screen drama might not be the best way to tackle the still-incendiary material.

“It would seem a journalistic or truly documentary treatment would be the proper approach,” Mr. McCall said. “Anybody younger than 60 years old would have little ability to put this tragic story in the context of the time. This story would be ancient history to the moviegoing crowd that filmmakers try to reach.”

Kennedy’s fellow Democrats knew all the details behind the story and rallied behind him for decades all the same.

“Even after the Chappaquiddick accident, Kennedy served a long political career and was widely celebrated by his party,” Mr. McCall said.

Mr. Hart said the Kennedy brand is forever tainted, but that has less to do with ‘60s-era figures like “Joe, John, Bobby or Ted.”

“It’s the self-righteous and apparently spoiled current generations that are mostly crafting the Kennedy legacy,” Mr. Hart said. “While there are some within the family that are viable candidates and leaders, several family members’ behaviors have tainted the legacy.”

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