Inertia and Cowardice Behind the Scenes: On the Film Chappaquiddick

by Mari A. Gomez


I must have been the only person in the theater that was under forty. I suppose it’s not a popular past time in El Paso to learn about cowardly elected officials. That's why we have the City Council we do.

When I left I felt kind of sick. I think I was trying to experience some understanding of Ted Kennedy. This might say something about the film's ability to treat the nuances of such pusillanimous acts. 

Kennedy spends the whole film dragging around this broken moral compass and fractured identity, wrestling with the inescapable shadow of his name, his failures to live up to it, and his self-admitted lack of character and courage. Yet, his paralysis might be relatable to some degree.

We’ve all, at some point, made a mistake, failed to do the right thing or at least delayed it. The difference is one tends to confess (to yourself or God or others) admit it, and try to grow from it. Not this guy. The film shows how the slimy among us can camouflage, blend in, and live a full life in our midst and in the public eye. How did he manage it? I still have serious regrets about a perfectly good banana I threw away in first grade, nevermind the bigger mistakes that haunt me daily.  He left a lady to die and managed to shrug it off.

The film succeeds in telling the story without indulging rumor and showing you precisely what a coward and a terrible person looks like up close.

How much of Ted Kennedy’s preoccupation with his political career was forced upon him? How much of his cowardly reactions were a manifestation of his father and an arrested development due to the Kennedy name and whatever curse it carried? It doesn’t excuse the lack of action, but I felt compelled to wonder what else contributed to  this paralysis. Clearly he had a realization of who he was and who he had not been and the immense pressure to be great when you are in fact, a fraud.

The story follows an intoxicated Ted Kennedy as he drives off a bridge with a young secretary named Mary-Jo Kopechne. The car flips and sinks into the water, trapping them both inside. Ted somehow gets out of the car and leaves Mary Jo behind without any real attempt to save her. He then wallows around in indecision, failing to report the event until the next morning. He stumbles along for hours, knowing what he should do, but also knowing the stain this will cause on the family.

He’s in a state of inertia and is unable to see the severity of the situation on a human level. He is incapable, in fact, of processing the events in an emotional way. He has sparks of emotion, but they are quickly washed over by his fear of his own name, the memory of his brothers, and the lack of spine. Jason Clarke, who plays Ted Kennedy, conveys this knotting of conscience quite brilliantly in the few moments where a semblance of emotion seeps through the slimy exterior.

Despite everything Ted Kennedy functions; he goes to bed, gets dressed, and even goes to brunch a completely empty vessel, devoid of all human components, but able to interact in the world. Is this how he functioned the rest of his life? An automaton of sorts, operating on some vapid level? It doesn’t help his Kennedy complex that while this is happening man is landing on the moon, an event inevitably tied to his brother’s legacy and a reminder of what a mess he is in comparison.

He is so incompetent and incomplete as a human being and in dealing with a real life event of such magnitude that he requires help in the most obvious of reactions. After he lives the girl in the car, he WALKS back to the party and the first thing out of his mouth is he tells Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) that he will not be President. Even in the thick of it, as he knows the girl is drowning or drowned, his political future is at the forefront of his preoccupation.

The entire film rests upon the fact that he did not take action. He was a man unable to act when needed and there is no worse kind of a man. He tells his father that he wants to be a great man. His father tells him this will never happen. 

The point is, he had just enough self-awareness to understand his own cowardice and he went through it anyway. He had glimpses of what seemed the right intentions, but they were short lived as he was surrounded by an entourage of people cleaning up after him. Whatever was or is in that name was bigger than his humanity. 

What exactly did that name contain? We all carry things in our blood. Our ancestors haunt us in subtle often biological ways. We all have trauma, tragedies, and ailments in our families and the goal is after all to transcend that with each passing generation. The goal is always to further what has come before you in a positive way and that Kennedy name had something in it and the film suggests it swallowed Kennedy whole for a time.

Those of us who have no Kennedy legacy looming over us know that when we make mistakes we are alone in them. One must wonder what it would it be like if every mistake you made could be swept under the rug. What does that do to a person? It makes you a Ted Kennedy.

I’ve known a few great men in my day and one thing they share is that they take action for what is right and what is right is never obscured by personal ambition or fear. Of course none of the great men I know belong to a Kennedy family, which is an entirely different kind of belonging. On some level, Ted Kennedy knew that someone was going to pick up the pieces for him. He knew he would not have to take full responsibility, that he could walk away unscathed or he could step back and repent. The former was, of course, more appetizing for him.

Kennedy did a televised speech where he spoke of the events and feigned to take responsibility. The film shows footage of voters being asked whether they believed Ted Kennedy in that speech and whether they would vote for him. Most people seemed welcoming to the idea. This is always a terrifying reminder of how little we know about people we elect. Someone like this can go on to have a robust career in the Senate.

Nevermind the idea that Democrats put this guy up on a pedestal and deemed him the Lion of the Senate, or that former Democratic Presidential candidates and others spoke of him fondly and with admiration. The film even goes beyond the fact that he still ran for President and campaigned in front of the whole nation after what he had done. The most poignant aspects of the film are the moments where you see his lack of humanity in full display.  Then there are the moments where he's just about to experience grief or regret and he can't quite linger there long enough to change his conscience. As an audience member you yearn to see him repent and accept responsibility, but you're not granted that release. In the end, the film shows what cowardice looks like up close and behind the curtain. It’s a terrible sight.

Mari GomezComment