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‘Chappaquiddick’ Toronto Review: A Morality Tale About Ted Kennedy

TIFF 2017: John Curran’s real-life drama turns out to be no hatchet job on late senator’s notorious involvement in fatal car accident

For those who expect a hatchet job against the Kennedy clan in “Chappaquiddick,” which premiered on Sunday at the Toronto Film Festival, they’ll have to keep waiting.

Chappaquiddick” takes a hard look at the lowest point in Ted Kennedy’s life — when he walked away from the fatal car accident on Martha’s Vineyard in which a young Mary Jo Kopechne drowned after he drove his car off a bridge and into a tidal channel in 1969.

Kennedy, at the time a newly-minted senator from Massachusetts, is played with taut egoism and convincing self-loathing by Jason Clark. He is flawed and behaves abominably in the hours after Kopechne‘s death. But he is also a full-blooded human being with his own burdens: the only remaining son of a domineering father who has lost three older brothers, all heroes in their own way, to tragedy.

Chappaquiddick may be an indelible stain on Ted Kennedy’s career, but it was not his entire life.

Kate Mara is underused as the smart but wounded Kopechne, a young campaign operative for Bobby Kennedy who remained in the Kennedy orbit.

What made Kennedy decide to panic and run from the scene of the accident? Why did he not report it until forced to do so? What makes men shrink from their mistakes, making them worse in the process?

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Director John Curran steps back from the action to let the audience observe rather than judge the characters up front. That’s a smart move that distinguishes this from the harsh verdicts rendered by other recent on-screen efforts (“The Kennedys.”)

But all that said, I’m not entirely sure why anyone chose to make this movie right now. We hardly lack in narratives that debunk the Kennedy mystique.

Indeed, the Kennedys’ moral failings are hardly what ails our democracy at this time. Many of us wish there was a Kennedy-esque figure to offer leadership in place of the moral chasm that faces the nation right now.