by Neal GablerMr. Gabler is writing a biography of Edward Kennedy.April 6, 2018
Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the most famous members of America’s most famous family, understood that he belonged as much to popular culture as to political culture. Now, nine years after his death, comes a movie about the event that, almost as much as the circumstances of his birth, established him in the tabloid pantheon: Chappaquiddick.
The film, by the same name, opens Friday and retells the story of an accident in July 1969, on the titular Massachusetts island near Martha’s Vineyard, in which Mr. Kennedy drove off a bridge, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign worker for his late brother Robert. It has been heavily promoted by conservative media outlets, and reviewers across the political spectrum have praised what they deem its damning but factual approach. Damning it is; factual it is not.
Let’s set aside the fact that, despite the film’s advertisements claiming to tell the “untold true story” of a “cover up,” the story has been told plenty, and no one but the most lunatic conspiracy theorists see this as anything but a tragic accident in which nothing much was covered up. Let’s also put aside the skein of conjecture and outright fabrication that the film unspools — in one scene Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch, murmurs “alibi” to his son, like a Mafia don, when in fact he was so debilitated by a stroke that he could only babble incoherently. Setting all this aside, the movie nevertheless raises a serious issue.
What is the relationship of fact to fiction, of the historical to the histrionic in art and entertainment? Ted Kennedy was a real man living out a real life. His political opponents could and did distort that life for their advantage. But just how many liberties can an artist or entertainer take when he or she deploys a biographical subject?
Many scenes cross from dramatic interpretation to outright character assassination. In this version, the Kennedy character leaves Kopechne to die as she gasps for air, and then, with the aid of his brothers’ old advisers, cooks up a scheme to salvage his presidential ambitions. A more callow, cunning, cowardly and self-interested yet moronic figure you couldn’t find. His first words after the accident are: “I’m not going to be president.”
Obviously, an artist isn’t saddled with the same obligations to fact that a biographer or historian is. We accept artists appropriating lives and altering them. But we also expect some an artistically valid justification for bending the truth, and sensationalism isn’t one of them. Biographical novels like “I, Claudius” or “Wolf Hall” put historical figures in the service of larger themes about the human condition. The novelist Joyce Carol Oates attempted to do that with Chappaquiddick in her novel “Black Water,” a roman à clef and a meditation on male power and female vulnerability.
Most artists understand how thin the line between art and gossip can be when one deals with real-life figures in semi-fictional contexts, which is why most artists wait until those figures pass into what seems like “public domain” — ceasing to exist as particularized people we know from the news and assuming larger cultural proportions that turn them into characters we don’t fully know.
Ted Kennedy has not passed into the public domain in this sense, so one tampers with his life at the peril of turning it into tawdry melodrama. This is especially true of the Kennedy family, who remain politically active, and divisive.
Contrary to the film’s implications, Mr. Kennedy immediately and forever after felt deep remorse and responsibility for the accident; it haunted him. By the end of his life, however, the then white-maned senator had managed to transcend celebrity and emotional paralysis and become what he had long aspired to be: an indispensable legislator whose achievements included the 18-year-old vote, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
His was a large-life, tragic and multidimensional figure, and it could have made, and perhaps someday will make, for an expansive novel or film about sin and redemption. “Chappaquiddick” is not that movie. Instead of excavating Kennedy for larger artistic aims, it eviscerates him for narrow voyeuristic ones.
But this is about more than Ted Kennedy’s legacy. It is a case study in how society collectively shapes its own history. It is not merely, or even mainly, the realm of historians.
Because historical figures pass out of history and into popular culture, and because that process is accelerating, these figures are increasingly defined by popular culture. Artists and especially entertainers may not feel obligations to their subjects, but they do have responsibilities to us, one of which is honesty.
Fake history is no better than fake news; it’s maybe worse. It is very possible that over time, through the osmosis of social media, the despicable Kennedy of this movie will eradicate the honorable if flawed real one.
At one point in the film, Ted Sorensen, one of John Kennedy’s closest advisers, tells Mr. Kennedy, “History usually has the final word in these things.” It’s meant to be a comforting thought, to say that the truth will come out in the end. Watching “Chappaquiddick,” it’s not clear that’s true.
Neal Gabler is writing a biography of Edward Kennedy.