This is the greatest story of white privilege ever told.
Just days before man landed on the moon, Senator Ted Kennedy was drinking too much when he flipped his car off a bridge and into a shallow pond. He was fine. He got out. But he left behind his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who died slowly, in agony, as her pocket of air expired. Which is not to say Ted Kennedy was completely unmoved. He was very sad to realize this meant he would never become president. Thinking only of himself, he walked by several houses and many phones in order to let his lawyers know, who encouraged him to report the accident while standing beside a payphone not one of them ever picked up. Instead he snuck back to his hotel, and on the advice of his father, established an alibi. Ten hours later, he made his way to the police station, minutes after her body was discovered. Had he summoned help, she would have lived. Instead she died, not of the impact, not of drowning, but of suffocation over the course of several hours.
The film follows the despicable events that follow: Kennedy’s obsession with minimizing the consequences to himself while painting himself as the victim. He assembles a whole team of men willing to lie and spin the story in his favour. Not a single one of them sheds a tear for the woman who died alone in the dark backseat of Kennedy’s submerged car.
In many ways, I hate this movie. It made my blood boil. But that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. Jason Clarke gives a pretty able and nuanced performance as the unconscionable Senator. Ed Helms also does a good job trying to be his conscience, and that’s not an enviable position. But despite these winning performances, the truth is still obscured. Director John Curran makes some choices I don’t understand, but he’s very capable at leaving space where Kennedy has the opportunity to do the right thing and doesn’t. And though his brother John is of course already gone, the moon looms over Teddy in many a scene, as if his older brother is looking down upon him, reminding us of their very different legacies. It’s a heartbreaking story that perhaps doesn’t fully play that way on screen, in part because the movie is as absorbed with Ted and Ted alone as Kennedy himself is. Opportunity vs. integrity – that’s what Helms says as Kennedy cousin Joey Gargan. And Ted Kennedy certainly chose one over the other.