“Chappaquiddick” is a well-acted examination of the Ted Kennedy 1969 drunk-driving scandal that ended with young Democratic aide Mary Joe Kopechne trapped and drowned in Kennedy’s car after it plunged into a pond off Dike Bridge. The new film appeals more to Republicans who hated him than the liberals who revere him — but it has a liberal director and star who refuse to publicize it through conservative outlets, and only a few under 40 know what “Chappaquiddick” means. So who will see it?
On the surface, it might seem to be a hatchet job on one of the Senate’s most respected politicians. “I hope between the reviews and word of mouth people will not see it as a one-dimensional hit piece,” said director John Curran (“The Painted Veil”). “The fear of that is understandable.”
Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios acquired the film before Toronto for $4 million against $16 million in P&A. When he asked Black List 2015 screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan why Kopechne didn’t sleep with Kennedy in the movie, they said they’d based their script on the inquest.
“That’s the answer I was looking for,” said Allen, who was an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter in the 2016 election. “‘You aren’t the right, or the left. You are straight across the plate.’ When they said that, ‘I’m in.’ We should have this conversation. I’m stepping this up.”
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Allen, who recently added the Weather Channel to his hodgepodge of entertainment assets, announced a December release and Oscar campaign for star Jason Clarke (“Mudbound”), but backed off in favor of another fall film with a bigger star, Scott Cooper western “Hostiles” starring Christian Bale. It made $29.8 million at the domestic box office, but received no nominations.
Now Allen is opening “Chappaquiddick” not as a limited release for discerning cinephiles, but as a 1,500-screen mainstream drama for national audiences. Spending some $16 million to open the movie, ES hired marketing ace Russell Schwartz to help lure moviegoers to theaters. Features on the movie turned up in major outlets USA Today, AP, and People; TV buys included the Stormy Daniels episode of “60 Minutes,” the premiere of “Roseanne,” and Fox News.
But Clarke and Curran aren’t cooperating with right-wing press requests. Clarke complains that the movie is being shunned by liberal TV hosts such as HBO’s Bill Maher and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who could clarify its intent. And Curran turned down an interview with Sean Hannity: “I said, ‘No fuckin’ way.’ I’m not embracing the right. They’re going to embrace this film anyway, see it through their own prism. I could have picked a film that’s a lot easier to market.”
“There are people who wouldn’t take our money, who didn’t want the movie out,” said Allen at the Academy premiere. “I can tell you they are real — not a Kennedy family member, but obviously a Kennedy defender, people who love and support them. I couldn’t believe it 49 years later. We actually have a TV station in Boston that wouldn’t take our ad buy. Did we forget about the first amendment? Put aside your agenda, how about the truth? How about we honor Mary Joe Kopechne, one of the original #MeToo victims?”
Why was Allen so willing to commit $20 million to taking this movie out in theaters? “I wanted the truth out there,” said Allen. “The truth will always come out. You can’t keep it from coming out.”
Allen and Logan were in their 20s when they first heard of Chappaquiddick; they Googled the Ted Kennedy scandal after the late Senator threw his weight behind Barack Obama’s 2008 run for president. The movie explores the Kennedy scion’s passive do-nothing-and-let-others-fix-this strategy, but the writers stick entirely to known facts from the inquest. It did not suggest that Kennedy had an affair with Robert Kennedy aide Kopechne, although there was certainly a party that night.
Clarke signed on to the film initially with director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who dropped out and was replaced by Curran; he and Clarke previously worked together on the 1998 Australian film “Praise.” Clarke digs into this iconic figure with finesse; Kate Mara is a demure, smart, and politically committed Kopechne, and Bruce Dern is fierce without words as stroke-ridden but still judgmental Kennedy patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy.
Clarke was born in Queensland the year the incident took place. When he read the script, “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that this man had done this and gotten away with it.” The events that night changed Kennedy and turned him into the man he became, said Clarke, who followed the lonely, dark route at night that Kennedy walked alone. “You go through a moral journey of choice. It’s Ted’s moral soul that’s at stake. It’s a very cunning, selfish, destructive thing. He handled it because it was innate in him.”
Clarke thinks that Kennedy eventually figured out: “‘Other people aren’t going to change anything. They are who they are. I can’t change them, but I can change myself.’ That’s part of looking at one of the great liberal Democrats in history.”
“Teddy didn’t know who he was yet,” said Curran. “I didn’t read it as a hit piece; I read something very nuanced. I felt the human being at its center, I wanted to contextualize who he was at that time, 37 years old, the year after Bobby was killed, with the expectations of the country and the family on him. This incident took options off the table. And he committed to being the best Senator he could be.”