Review: 'Chappaquiddick' Shocks With Tragic, Shameful True Story

Forty-nine years ago, Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car into a pond on an island off Martha’s Vineyard, killing passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. The story of what really happened that night has been the subject of much speculation and debate for nearly five decades, and is now the subject of the film Chappaquiddick, opening this weekend.

While the release is considered wide, Chappaquiddick is only positioned in less than half as many theaters as other new competitors at the box office — A Quiet Place and Blockers, both releasing this weekend, have north of 3,300 screens apiece, compared to Chappaquiddick’s 1,500+. With several heavy-hitting holdovers like Ready Player One and Black Panther still enjoying solid play with audiences and the two newcomers expected to appeal to viewers seeking new offerings this weekend, there isn’t much room for Chappaquiddick to break out.

Most estimates peg Chappaquiddick at roughly $3 million for its domestic bow, but looking at the competition it seems like it’ll be a rough fight to even get to that figure. $2+ million is my prediction, unless it can pick up some serious mainstream public buzz after opening day and draw in more viewers through the rest of the weekend.

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I’m surprised Entertainment Studios didn’t decide to hold the film until next year and release it on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, along with plenty of marketing about the history behind the story, including having some researchers doing interviews and Q&As at advance press screenings to discuss various theories and rumors revolving around the events.

With the right approach and timing, I think there was potential to make the film a bigger release and counter-program against the other summer blockbusters in 2019. It’s hard to buy a film for distribution and then hold it — and Entertainment Studios picked up Chappaquiddick in 2016 right as the film began shooting, so a 2019 release would’ve required sitting on it for two years, an admittedly tough call — but I do think it would’ve worked out better for both the box office results and potential Oscar attention.

As it stands, the $2 million domestic opening will probably translate into a $6-10 million grand total in North America, depending on how good audience word-of-mouth is and how long Chappaquiddick can hold onto screens as summer blockbuster season gets underway in a few more weeks.

Why do I think Chappaquiddick could’ve earned Oscar attention, and still hypothetically could, despite its early April release date? Read on for my full review…

Jason Clarke carries most of the weight of the film on his shoulders in a tremendous performance as Senator Kennedy. Clarke perfectly captures the combination of outrageous sense of self-entitlement, desperate self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, and an almost comical foolishness see-sawing against coldly calculated manipulations.

Consumed by his own flaws and a seeming inability (at least at the time, and for many years afterward) to rise above them in any way beyond staged and scripted performances, Kennedy is a tragic character, a comical character, and a villainous character, at various times and often all at once. We are fooled into a sympathy for the man repeatedly throughout the story, only to find ourselves disgusted by him in the next moment.

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It is this delicately complex balance of arc and performance that propel Chappaquiddick. So often in the film, Clarke exhibits a wide range of emotional turmoil without saying a word, relying on posture and expression, on subtle changes in things as simple as the focus of his vision, and embodies Kennedy so well as to deliver a performance that many will come to recall in their minds as a definitive impression of Ted Kennedy. We’ll have to see whether the Oscars remember Clark’s performance roughly ten months from now, since typically the films getting the most attention for award consideration release in the back half of the year, but Clarke certainly deserves serious consideration.

Kate Mara portrays Kopechne as an idealistic woman who saw her hopes crushed and is fearful of risking re-entry into politics via any eventual presidential campaign by Kennedy. Haunted by the ghost of what might have been, she cannot help but be intrigued by the possibility of recapturing the promise once more. Mara’s performance blends strength and emotional exhaustion, heartbreaking loss and the dream of a second chance, for a portrait of Kopechne that is simply devastating.

The rest of the supporting cast are all outstanding, but a few standouts include Ed Helms in his best performance to date as the nerve-racked Joe Gargan, who emerges as a sort of subordinated conscience of the film; Clancy Brown in a brief but gruff, piercing turn as Robert McNamara; and Taylor Nichols portraying the perpetually amused incredulity of Ted Sorensen (note: my wife is friends with Mr. Nichols, but this fact did not influence my review).

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