It’s remarkable – and it seems to be remarkable to Jason Clarke, too – how many people under a certain age don’t know what “Chappaquiddick” means. In most situations like this, when a big historical event is lost to time, it has to do mostly with the parties involved fading away from the zeitgeist. But everyone knows who Ted Kennedy is, it’s just that his darkest chapter was fairly successfully swept away as Kennedy became the “Lion of the Senate.”
In Chappaquiddick, Jason Clarke portrays Kennedy as a conflicted man caught somewhere between wanting to do the right thing and wanting this to all go away to protect the Kennedy name. The 1969 incident at the heart of the film involved Kennedy driving, possibly while intoxicated, on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick, losing control of his car and landing in a body of water. Kennedy walked away, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne (portrayed in the film by Kate Mara), lost her life. The following days saw a series of conflicting statements issued in an effort by the Kennedy family to make the whole thing go away. Most infamously, Ted Kennedy then showed up to Kopechne’s funeral wearing what some suggested was a fake neck brace.
When Chappaquiddick premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, there were younger attendees who had no idea what that title even meant. The publicists for the film must have caught on to this phenomena, because the film’s hashtag is now “#thisreallyhappened,” which is usually reserved for a movie that involving the supernatural or alien sightings.
Ahead, Jason Clarke takes us through what it’s like to get inside the head of Ted Kennedy during what has to be the worst chapter of his life. Clarke wants to make clear this isn’t a hatchet job on Kennedy, but explores one of the ugliest chapters of American politics from the perspective of America’s most famous political family.
I’ve come across quite a few people who don’t realize this really happened.
Yes. It’s staggering. You know, look, it’s good for the film if people want to go and see it and learn something, absolutely. But it’s staggering on one level that you think about history because of the importance of this and what it led to, but then it’s not surprising when you see what’s going on in the legal world. You know, so it’s just a conundrum within a conundrum.
Someone commented that Chappaquiddick was a crazy title for a movie and wondered what it meant and I was like…
[Laughs.] I know, “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
So he was told and then he got mad that it was a spoiler…
It’s insane, isn’t it?
One of my earliest memories is when Ted Kennedy ran against Carter in ’80 in the Democratic primary my grandfather was like, “Oh, Chappaquiddick.” So I was like, “What’s that?” But later that went away.
I know, and he became the Lion of the Senate. It’s hard, you don’t mean to be disrespectful. And he achieved a lot. But I watched a lot of the eulogies, you know? Including President Barack Obama’s. And it’s hard to watch it with the same eyes when you put the story into context as well. And you go, really?
This movie does a great job of you getting into his head during the cover-up and going back and forth about it…
Yeah, and also the understanding of what I’m going to become if I go down this path and get out of it. Who am I? You can feel that monster inside you that’s still going down it, absolutely – taking responsibility, avoiding responsibility, passing responsibility. You follow the man on his moral journey here, his choices. It’s not some grandiose conspiracy thing at all. You just see them sitting there, working it out as they go. What’s the problem now? And the film forces you, I think, to watch it and to be with it and to experience it and to make your own mind up. Hopefully, you can relate that to the current situation: how you feel about other things in people you vote for, both sides of the coin. Not just the Republican Trump side, but the Democrats.