Chappaquiddick, which premieres on April 6, aims to deliver a matter-of-fact, unbiased portrayal of one of the most shocking events in American political history. On the evening of July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile off a wooden bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. Kennedy escaped the submerged car, but his 28-year-old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, died. Kennedy then waited 10 hours to alert the police.
Unless you were conscious in or around 1969, the year in which the Chappaquiddick accident took place, you’re probably wholly unfamiliar with this story. Chappaquiddick’s screenwriters, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, who are both in their 30s, certainly were. In fact, the co-writers found out about the accident in 2008 on an episode of Real Time With Bill Maher.
With Chappaquidick, Allen and Logan's intention is to render a version of the story that is free from sensationalism. Instead of indulging the rumors that swirled following the accident regarding Kennedy’s state of inebriation and his potential romantic involvement with Kopechne, Chappaquidick presents the facts — which are disturbing enough on their own. “We hope the movie lets audiences draw their own conclusions,” Allen said after a film screening at the Austin Film Festival.
Here are the events that are laid out in the movie, from which the audience can “draw their own conclusions,” as Allen said. At the time of the accident, Kennedy and Kopechne had been on Chappaquiddick Island for a reunion weekend for people who had worked an Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968. This was the fourth such reunion since Robert Kennedy’s assassination. In attendance were six campaign secretaries, nicknamed "Boiler Room Girls," and six men. In retrospect, the party took on a slightly salacious light – all six women were unmarried and under the age of 28, and all six men were married.
Kopechne and Kennedy attended a party on Friday, July 18, 1969 , that involved drinking. In a later testimony, Kennedy said that at 11 p.m., he offered Kopechne a ride to the ferry that would take them from Chappaquiddick to Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, where their hotel rooms were located. However, Kennedy's car did not follow the paved road to the ferry. Instead, Kennedy made a right turn onto an unmarked road that led to the beach.
The car plunged off a narrow bridge, situated at a sharp left angle to the road, and into the pond. Kennedy was able to escape through the driver's seat window, which had been rolled down. He tried to free Kopechne from the car. When he was unable to do so, he returned to the cottage where the party was still going on. Kennedy, his cousin Joe Gargan, and their friend, former U.S. attorney Paul Markham, returned to where the Oldsmobile was still visible underwater. None of them were unable to rescue Kopechne.
Instead of alerting the police, Kennedy, according to his testimony, swam across the channel to his Edgartown hotel room, and went to sleep. The next morning, he got breakfast, and returned to Chappaquiddick. He still did not call the police. The accident was finally reported at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday the 19, when two young men coming home from a fishing trip reported the submerged car. A diver arrived 10 minutes later, and surveyed the car.
Kennedy and his friends' decision not to call the police had major consequences. The diver who ended up pulling Kopechne from the car believed that Kopechne had been sustained, for about three or four hours, through an air bubble. “I know she suffocated when her oxygen ran out,” the diver, John Farrar, said in a book about the incident. “She didn’t drown.” Farrar believed Kopechne could have been saved, had Kennedy called the police.
While the rest of the country was fixated on the moon landing that was happening concurrently, Kennedy and his friends were fighting to preserve his reputation. In Chappaquiddick, we see the many steps Kennedy and his friends took to do so. For example, Kennedy wore a neck brace to Kopechne's highly publicized funeral, though it hadn't been medically required. Ultimately, Kennedy was sentenced to two months in jail for leaving the scene of the crime (the sentence was later suspended). He never faced substantial repercussions for his involvement in the accident.
Though he didn’t go to jail, the accident did rule out Kennedy's chances of being president. Ted, the last surviving Kennedy son, had been preparing to run for president in 1972; instead, he refused to run in 1972 and 1976, and then ran – but lost – in 1980. Instead of being president, Kennedy went onto have one of the longest-running careers in the Senate, serving from 1962 to 2009.
Kennedy's reputation eventually recovered from the Chappaquidick accident, but Kopechne's did not. As a result of the party weekend, Kopechne and the Boiler Room Girls ended up being associated with fast living, not with their hard work on Kennedy's campaign. "[We] were portrayed as girls of no significance — even as party girls. It was humiliating — but no one bothered to set the record straight,” Nancy Lyons, another Boiler Room Girl, told the Washington Post. Chappaquidick makes Kopechne out to be the ambitious, politically minded woman she was in life. A life cut far too short.