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The incident that’s become known as “Chappaquiddick,” in which U.S. Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy drove his car off a bridge near Martha’s Vineyard in 1969, resulting in the death of his young passenger Mary Jo Kopechne and questionable efforts by Kennedy to save her life afterward, was one of the more notorious scandals of the 1960s.

The aftermath saw Kennedy pleading guilty to a minor charge, receiving a suspended sentence, and retaining his Senate seat, which he kept until his death 40 years later. While the incident likely kept Kennedy from any shot at the presidency, his reputation outgrew it – and when Kennedy died in 2009, the New York Times obituary first mentioned Chappaquiddick in the 15th paragraph.

…this tale of a powerful man in America committing an indefensible act and getting away with it is pretty timely these days, what with multiple-times-accused sexual predator Donald Trump in the White House, the Harvey Weinstein debacle still in the news, and the numerous other scandals of prominent badly-behaved men…

For obvious reasons, this tale of a powerful man in America committing an indefensible act and getting away with it is pretty timely these days, what with multiple-times-accused sexual predator Donald Trump in the White House, the Harvey Weinstein debacle still in the news, and the numerous other scandals of prominent badly-behaved men (Louis C.K., James Toback, Leon Wieseltier, Mark Halperin and many more) making daily headlines on the heels of the Weinstein revelations. And Kennedy, like Weinstein and several of the others, was a powerful man whose stridently liberal politics didn’t stop him from mistreating women.

While other movies, most notably Brian De Palma’s Blow Out in 1981, have riffed on various aspects of the Chappaquiddick affair, we now have the first-ever major motion picture about the scandal, titled simply Chappaquiddick. The film stars Jason Clarke as Kennedy and Kate Mara as Kopechne, and was acquired after the Toronto Film Festival for over $20 million. One would think its obvious juxtaposition to the recent news would ideally position Chappaquiddick as both a major holiday season release and a timely awards contender. But as we learned earlier this month, it’s not going to be one.

A Missed Opportunity

Chappaquiddick‘s distributor, the fledgling Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, announced October 21 that it was moving the film’s release date from late November to April 6, 2018, taking it out of both awards season and 2017 altogether. The move came just two weeks after the studio had moved the film from December to the Thanksgiving weekend, and was confirmed, to me, by director John Curran prior to the film’s United States premiere screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival in late October.

The stated reason for the move, according to a Deadline.com story, was to give a better awards chance to the studio’s other film this fall, director Scott Cooper’s Western, Hostiles and its lead actor Christian Bale, and also to prevent the prospect of Clarke having to compete for acting awards against his own performance in the highly-touted Netflix film Mudbound.

…the move, according to a Deadline.com story, was to give a better awards chance to the studio’s other film this fall, director Scott Cooper’s Western, Hostilesand its lead actor Christian Bale…

It’s a shame though, because not only is Chappaquiddick a standout treatment of this story, but it’s a perfect film for these times. The director himself, when I spoke to him at the festival, saw this connection too.

“It was an amazing script,” Curran said of the screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, which made 2015’s “Black List” of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. “I got it in the spring of 2016, and felt a very prescient time, to start taking a hard look at some of our politicians.” He added that the script has only gotten more prescient in the time since.

Director John Curran of Chappaquiddick, at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival (Stephen Silver)

Director John Curran of Chappaquiddick, at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival (Stephen Silver)

And that’s an understatement. A lot of popular culture in the last 50 years has juxtaposed the promise of the early 1960s with the letdown of the later part of the decade, and Chappaquiddick finds a most inventive way of doing so: President John F. Kennedy begins the ‘60s by promising to put a man on the moon. In July of 1969, just two days before that promise came true, JFK’s younger brother is not only committing a grave act, but using the remaining apparatus of his brother’s presidency to clean up after it.

Yes, as we see in the film, the best and the brightest of the Kennedy White House, led by the legendary speechwriter Ted Sorenson (played in the movie by Whit Stillman regular Taylor Nichols) and Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), are shown reconvening a few years later not to map out the lofty rhetoric of a new presidency, but rather to plot the cover-up of what was probably a negligent DUI manslaughter. And, thanks to a combination of string-pulling and shameless deceit, they succeeded. Generational metaphors about the squandered promise of the ‘60s don’t get much starker than that.

Curran’s film, while it gives Kennedy some moments of humanity, nevertheless mostly depicts him as a callous jerk, clearly caring much less about the death of another human being than about what the incident means for his political future.

Curran’s film, while it gives Kennedy some moments of humanity, nevertheless mostly depicts him as a callous jerk, clearly caring much less about the death of another human being than about what the incident means for his political future.  Chappaquiddick also has very little interest in propping up the mythos of the Kennedy family – as crystalized by the role of Bruce Dern as the declining, wheelchair-bound, months-from-death Joseph Kennedy, introduced on the phone grunting “alibi!” at his only remaining son.

Also giving the film modern-day salience is a wonderful brief performance by the actress Olivia Thirlby, from Juno, who is introduced as Mary Jo’s friend and fellow RFK campaign alum but later revealed as a dead-eyed political operator, unquestionably putting the political interests of the senator above the life of her newly dead friend. She may as well be wearing a nametag that says “Kellyanne Conway” or “Ivanka Trump.”

The Return of Billy Bush

There are echoes, indeed, of Donald Trump’s successful political comeback after the Access Hollywood tape, achieved through a combination of a credulous public, a team of scheming, amoral political advisers, and a politician willing to lie, brazenly, about many different things. We also see interviews with voters inclined to give Teddy a break, in a 1960s version of those soul-crushing Frank Luntz focus groups on cable news shows.

The more I think about it, the more mind-boggling the decision to move the film looks. And it’s not like it’s going to give viewers unpleasant exact reminders of the Weinstein scandal – it doesn’t involve sexual abuse or coercion, nor does it even imply that Kennedy and Kopechne were lovers.

But nevertheless, the Academy loves to send a message – what better way, in the year of Harvey Weinstein, than to award a film about a powerful man who got away with a horrible crime against a woman? It would even put the lie to all those shots at “liberal Hollywood,” as this Hollywood-produced-and-released film that’s mostly about Ted Kennedy being an entitled monster, and even ends with audio of Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama in 2008.

…the Academy loves to send a message- what better way, in the year of Harvey Weinstein, than to award a film about a powerful man who got away with a horrible crime against a woman?

Knowing the world we live in, when Chappaquiddick is released in April, it’s highly probable that some other scandal will be in the news about a powerful man getting away with something, most likely a bad act done to a woman, giving the film salience for a whole other reason. But that doesn’t change that Chappaquiddick was unfairly denied the chance at a more prominent spot.

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