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‘Chappaquiddick’: Still no justice for Mary Jo Kopechne

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Loredana Vuoto

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was not a victim.

But “Chappaquiddick,” the recent drama directed by James Curran about the infamous incident off Chappaquiddick Island that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and derailed Kennedy’s presidential bid, paints a different picture.

In the movie, first-time screenwriters, Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen, portray Kennedy as a sympathetic protagonist defenseless against his family’s renown legacy and his abusive father—the reasons why he was unable to do the right thing that fateful night.

On July 18, 1969, after attending a party in Martha’s Vineyard, Kennedy took a drive with Kopechne, his late brother Robert’s secretary. The car veered off a narrow bridge, landing in water. Kennedy managed to survive, but Kopenche drowned. He then waited 10 hours before reporting the incident to police.

These are the facts, but many unanswered questions remain. Was Kennedy drunk? Were he and Kopechne having an affair? Why didn’t he call the police immediately? Was this really an accident?

Despite almost 10 years since Kennedy’s passing, “Chappaquiddick” refuses to condemn him. Instead, it peddles a false tale of a good man simply caught in the crosshairs of history, abuse and unfortunate circumstances.

Throughout the movie, Kennedy, played by Australian actor Jason Clarke, bemoans how difficult it is to live up to his brother John’s legacy and the Kennedy name. As “Chappaquiddick” begins, John’s vision of Apollo 11 is about to realized. Even post-mortem, John’s success has “cast a long shadow.”

Kennedy’s tortured relationship with his mean-spirited father, Joe Kennedy Sr., played by Bruce Dern, belabors the point. In a climactic scene, Kennedy implores his father’s love.

“Joe, Jr. was the favorite one. Jack was the charming one. Bobby was the brilliant one. And what did that leave for me, Dad? The fat one? The stupid one? … Well, I can be charming. I can be brilliant.”

He confesses that all he ever wanted was to make his father proud and to “be a great man.”

Joe Sr. crushes his spirit. He tells him, “You will never be great.”

When Kennedy calls his father after the incident, his father says only one word: “Alibi.” The message: Kennedy must not besmirch the family name; he must preserve political power.

These scenes reinforce the narrative that Kennedy is a good man who was so abused by his father and the burden of not dishonoring his family legacy that he was helpless acting otherwise when tragedy struck.
That is why when his father sends in “fixers” to “make the problem go away,” Kennedy has no choice but to acquiesce. Instead of taking responsibility and resigning from office, he agrees to their spin and opts for “a new beginning.”

But for Kopechne, there is just one end. In her final moments, Kopechne—played by Kate Mara who is best known as Zoey Barnes in “House of Cards”—desperately recites the Lord’s Prayer as the car fills with water.

After the incident, when Kennedy calls his advisor Joe Gargan for help, his first words are, “I will not be president.” Kennedy’s only concern is for himself. His dream of running for president in 1972 and winning are over. This is more important than the death of a loyal employee.

But if Kennedy was so heartbroken, why does he try to garner sympathy by wearing a fake neck brace at Kopechne’s funeral? Why does he plant an absurd news story that he has a concussion and is on sedatives, when he was never seen by a doctor and sedatives would be ill-prescribed?

The answer: Kennedy is a ruthless political climber who wants to forge his own legacy. He is not an abused soul struck by the Kennedy curse.
In the end, Kennedy was not punished for his sins and only received a two-month suspended jail sentence for leaving the scene of an accident. The judge rationalized that being haunted by the incident was punishment enough.

Instead, Kennedy became a liberal icon for the Democratic Party. Despite not ever becoming president, he transformed into the “Lion of the Senate,” serving for decades.

“Chappaquiddick,” like the corrupt justice system at the time beholden to the Kennedy stranglehold, ultimately fails Kopechne. And to this day, there is still no justice for her.

Loredana Vuoto is a columnist for the Boston Broadside, and is a former speechwriter for the Senate Republican Conference and was assistant national editor at The Washington Times.

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