The Drowning: John Curran's 'Chappaquiddick' recreates a tragic night and its political shockwave

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It just had to be a jest of God that the weekend Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind” and carried John F. Kennedy’s legacy all the way to the Moon was the same weekend a tragic misstep killed the dream of another Kennedy White House.

That tragedy was, in a word, Chappaquiddick—an isle adjoining Martha’s Vineyard where Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge into the drink, causing the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who’d been a worker for the recently deceased Robert Kennedy.

And now—49 years after her death and nine years after Teddy’s—it’s the title of a film that explores this upending, quirky event in painful, frequently unflattering detail. This exacting and thoroughly researched original screenplay is the first ever written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, a couple of thirty-something newbies who, not for nothing, made Variety’s latest annual list of 10 Screenwriters to Watch.

“I was particularly struck when I read the script about the timing—that the incident coincided with the Moon landing,” confesses the film’s director, John Curran, “and, in a way, I wanted the Moon landing to hang over the film. In terms of the sound design and music, it certainly bled into the direction we took, but, truthfully, until I read the screenplay, I have to admit I never conflated those two events. How ironic, right?”

Opening on April 6 from Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, Chappaquiddick, like Jackie, plays like a fresh wound for the generations who lived through the all-too-familiar events on the screen. Curran is in that number: “I was born in 1960, so I was nine when Chappaquiddick happened. At the time, I was living in New Providence, which is next door to Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, where the Kopechnes lived. I remember there was a lot of hoopla at school about the girl in the next town.”

Curran started out illustrating children’s books. “When I realized I wouldn’t make any money doing that, I went on a more commercial-design path that led me into filmmaking. I suppose, on some level, my compositions and framing have something to do with that kind of training, but I also admired narrative storytelling. Even in the illustration style that I pursued, there was more narrative than expressionistic.”

This background gives his movie a visual validity—an authenticity to the era it addresses. “With a period piece, what you want to have is not glaring mistakes. You want to create a visual look, a coloring for the film—and get all the details right. It draws you back and is reminiscent of some point in time without it being too overt.”

Despite their youth, his writers displayed a marvelously evocative feel for the ’60s. “They didn’t even know what Chappaquiddick was until they were watching some news story and somebody mentioned that Teddy Kennedy would probably have been President had it not been for Chappaquiddick,” says Curran. “That started them researching it and thinking there was a fascinating, important story to tell there.”

In a way, it makes sense that only a later generation would be game and uninhibited enough to attempt an even-handed retelling of the Chappaquiddick tragedy. The reason no one has stepped up to the plate until now, Curran believes, “is because Ted was alive—unless you were trying to do a one-dimensional takedown of Teddy Kennedy, and none of us wanted to do that. We’re all fans of the sort of legislation that Ted pursued throughout his career as a senator. Our interest was in trying to detail a very truthful story without pulling punches and create empathy for him.”

What intrigued Curran most about this warts-and-all portrait of Ted Kennedy was the ebb and flow of sympathy for the character. “I tried to retain that reaction in the finished film. My allegiance to Ted was shifting scene by scene. There were scenes where I felt incredibly sorry for him, and there were scenes where I was disgusted by his decisions. And there are scenes where I would ask myself what would I have done in that situation. That shifting perspective is very important to the film.

“You have to understand, in ’69 Bobby Kennedy had been dead only a year, and Teddy was still reeling from that. I come from a very large family of eight kids—Irish Catholics—and the idea of being the last brother after all your brothers have been killed in the line of duty would be an enormous weight of expectations on you. Also, there’s the question of whether or not you want to get into trying to fill their shoes.”

When Curran took on the project, he sat down with Allen and Logan and presented them with a list of a dozen questions he had about their script. “I wanted to make sure they didn’t invent a lot of the pivotal plot turns, but there were some strange decisions and behaviors, some outrageous coincidences, and these were all drawn from facts or the inquest. There’s obviously dialogue that’s made up in characters that are sort of hybrids of real people, but we really tried not to take creative license with the facts of the case or with the decisions made from within the Kennedy camp.

“Also, there was a very low appetite to prosecute Ted. It was Ted Kennedy country. They were all Democrats. Even the special prosecutor admitted on camera, in a subsequent documentary, they didn’t try too hard. If this accident had happened today, I think his career would have been over. It was a different time back then. There was a bit more hands-off quality to politicians, at least in terms of the press.”

The director and his writers gingerly tiptoe through scenes that weren’t witnessed or documented. Whether Ted and Mary Jo were racing off to a tryst is left up to you.

“Who knows? There are things only those two know about that night that none of us will ever know. I didn’t want to say there isn’t that possibility, but I certainly didn’t want to say it happened. It’s open to interpretation whether they did or they didn’t.”

The one unhappy, unprintable line given to his wife, Joan, seems to point to a pretty miserable marriage and a very randy Teddy. “There’s enough evidence that he was sort of a serial philanderer, so you’d be creating a false history otherwise. You want to capture his character as well as you can, and I think it was part of his character.”

The Australian actor tapped to play Ted Kennedy—Jason Clarke of Zero Dark Thirty and Mudbound—was actually born the day before the Chappaquiddick incident.

And such “outrageous coincidences” don’t stop there. Curran met Clarke during the two decades he lived in Australia, “and he was actually in my first feature, called Praise, for about eight seconds. He was one of the lead characters’ boyfriends who appears for a brief moment in a party and then disappears for the rest of the film.

“I’ve always really loved him as an actor, and when I got the script, Jason was already attached. The big reason I did it was I think he’s a phenomenal actor—I knew he’d do his homework and figure out a dialect that wasn’t distracting—but also he had that sort of malleable face that you sort of recognize. If you cast a big star in that role, it’s hard to get beyond that, whereas I think Jason just disappears into the role.”

Kate Mara has the relatively brief role of the tragic Mary Jo. Most of the film focuses on the crisis of Kennedy conscience that followed her death, which was even worse than originally reported. The film suggests she may have remained alive underwater anywhere up to two hours. “There’s certainly proof from the diver who found her,” says Curran. “The body position suggested that she was holding herself up into an air pocket. It’s been corroborated with a couple of medical experts. The evidence was strong that leaned toward her suffocating rather than drowning. There wasn’t a lot of water in her lungs. The evidence suggested she had died of suffocation, which meant she ran out of air as opposed to her lungs filling with water. How long she was alive nobody can say. It didn’t appear, by all evidence, she died immediately.”

Curran contends that the script was a tragedy that evolved into almost a farce. Thus, “I needed actors who could play the straight drama with gravity and seriousness but also had an element of humor to them so that I could draw on that when it was necessary.” Consequently, he cast two comedic actors in heavy-duty roles—Ed Helms as Ted’s cousin and lawyer, Joe Gargan, and Jim Gaffigan as the Massachusetts Attorney General, Paul Markham. “I got two very smart, intelligent actors,” he says.

“Joe Gargan and his sister, Ann, had parents who died when they were very young. Their mother was Rose Kennedy’s sister, so Joseph Kennedy Sr. took them in and almost adopted them. Both of them grew up in the Kennedy household. Ann became almost the nursemaid to Joe after he was incapacitated through a stroke, and Joey was sort of the fix-it man for the family, an accomplished lawyer in his own right, but, for all intents and purposes, he was Ted’s buddy and guardian growing up.”

The Chappaquiddick incident marked a parting of the ways for Gargan and the Kennedy clan. “He hung with the Kennedys through the subsequent inquest but, afterward, had a break from the family and remained estranged the rest of his life.”

The performance that haunts you is Bruce Dern’s patriarch Joe Kennedy, an 80-year-old stroke victim four months from the grave. He even wins in a scene where he’s not visible (he’s the first person Teddy phones after the car accident, and he responds with emotional, guttural sounds but does manage to get out one word: “Alibi”). When he’s visible with the facial distortion and spittle, he’s award-worthy.

“It’s a hard thing to ask of older actors,” understates Curran. “They just aren’t that keen on playing stroke victims and characters near death because that’s too close to the bone—and this is a character who can’t really speak. He’s got, like, three lines in the whole film, but Bruce was aggressively eager to play that role. He loved the idea that he could play it with his eyes and that he didn’t have to play it with words.”

In this torrent of words and excuses and alibis, even silence can speak volumes.