CRIME CULTURE: Chappaquiddick

CRIME CULTURE: The art of the political cover-up is explored in fine detail in the historical thriller Chappaquiddick, with the film raising important questions on the way powerful elites view ordinary people as expendable. Gary Johnston takes a look for True Crime News Weekly.

Manipulation and cover ups being the flavour of the week – no, scrap that, of the age, Chappaquiddick delivers an unmistakable and utterly credible message that power not only corrupts, but deliberately befogs the truth, consigning the underprivileged and unimportant to roles as bit players in that real life concept preposterously known as the ‘bigger picture’.

With the possible exception of the World Wrestling Federation – and that’s a line-ball call – nowhere is spin, complicity and bare-faced mendacity more prevalent than politics. Then as now, in the USA, Australia and pretty much every nation wherever murky deals are cooked up in smoke and testosterone filled back rooms, privilege, influence and, most importantly, money, rules, ok?

For those not aware of the Chappaquiddick story, Senator Ted Kennedy – the youngest, least able but only surviving scion of the famous Kennedy dynasty, possessing few of his brother’s qualities save for looks and a pervasive sense of entitlement – drunkenly drove, in 1969, a car into a Martha’s Vineyard canal, saving himself at the expense of his drowned passenger, campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne.

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Since the facts of the tragedy were rigorously massaged at the time and have been obscured by subsequent history, the movie treads a cautious path, subtly glossing over the main scandal of those buttoned-up days, whether married father of four Kennedy was, in the accepted style of his mad shagger brothers, indulging in what was contemporaneously referred to as ‘immoral conduct’. Rightly taking the view that manslaughter is a significantly less virtuous sin than adultery, the script focuses instead on how the tragedy was shamelessly manipulated for Kennedy benefit, with Mary Jo becoming a problem that had to be resolved, rather than a victim deserving of sympathy, respect and basic human decency.

Sound familiar? Funny, that.

After Kennedy waits until the next day to report the accident, fully aware that Kopechne is dead, his despotic father’s fixers get to work, spinning a tale that, whilst it doesn’t absolve Teddy from blame, calls in enough favours by leaning heavily on various establishment factotums, to save a career that his dad at least, hopes will culminate in the White House.

Edward Kennedy
This July 22, 1969 file photograph shows U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, arriving back at his home in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, wearing a neck brace after attending the funeral of Mary Jo Kopechne in Pennsylvania. The film Chappaquiddick suggests Kennedy was not as injured in the incident as he made himself out to be. (Image: Frank C Curtin / AP)

Aussie actor Jason Clarke plays Kennedy with a stoic public resolve, effectively masking the inner turmoil of a man who seems to have everything, with the apparent exception of integrity, principle and any discernible sense of moral substance.

There are reasons, of course. Belittled and bullied by his formidable and pitiless dad – played here by Bruce Dern – circumstances have delivered Teddy as the last, faintly desperate personification of family ambition, even though everyone in the inner circle, Ted included, instinctively knows he doesn’t have what it takes.

Essentially something of a bumbler, Ted is pre-destined to forever walk in his illustrious sibling’s shadows and even though the family runt still enjoys the privilege and adulation that habitually accompanies the Kennedy name, enjoying a level of patronage and obsequiousness rarely seen outwith the courts of emperors, potentates, emirs and kings, Teddy-boy is regarded by everyone in the inner circle, as a bit of dud.

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It’s to the film’s credit that there’s a clear acknowledgement of Kennedy’s feelings of guilt about Mary-Jo’s death, a fact not in any way compromised by its subtle portrayal of a vain, selfish and self-pitying man awkwardly twisted into the shape and form of a destiny he neither craves or deserves. Encouraged – make that terrorised – into becoming the ill-equipped head of a family built on greed, vice and ruthless profit, Teddy’s obvious weaknesses are shrouded in the cloak of the Camelot mythology. The gown, indeed, only becomes transparent in a scene where his stroke-afflicted father delivers his errant son a slap across the chops, no mean feat conceding the patriarch’s extreme physical disability. Old Joe, it seems, isn’t pissed off because it happened, but because the boy is too much of a clutz to cover it up.

It’s left to the the Kennedy think-tank, led by the ruthless Robert McNamara, ably played by sturdy character actor Clancy Brown, to concoct a convoluted tale suitable for public consumption, portraying a contrite Ted as hapless victim and rendering Kopechne a supernumerary afterthought. Ted knows it’s all bullshit, but he goes along with it, in a telling, uncomfortable scene that brings to mind the famous quote about sincerity: “Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made”.

In the televised address, he’s advised to make eye contact with the camera when delivering the most ‘sincere’ lines, buoyed by his handlers advice – “Don’t worry about it, we’ve got cue cards”. It’s a fantastic scene which everyone who’s ever harboured a suspicion about the honesty of politicians should file away in their memory banks: they not only lie, they lie well.

Well directed, competently acted and tightly scripted, Chappaquiddick is a film which serves to remind us, should we need prompting, that political cover ups are as ancient as the Bert Newton fan base.

That we – as a public – still have to regard every piece of ‘news’ which politicians release, or have their mainstream media acolytes authorise, as suspect in its aims and motives and continually open to examination. It’s a state of play which suggests that, unlike Ted Kennedy, whose career recovered well enough for him to be amongst the longest serving US senators, we haven’t really come very far at all.

It’s an impressive film about a not very impressive man. And a thoroughly odious system.

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About Gary Johnston 16 Articles
Gary Johnston is an author, academic and former parole officer with decades of experience in the criminal justice system. He is True Crime News Weekly's Melbourne correspondent. His book 'No Previous Conviction' was published in May 2017 and is available on Amazon.

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