The new movie "Chappaquiddick" is unearthing a dark chapter of American history that put the speck of land off Martha's Vineyard in the news — and on the tourist map.
The film re-imagines the true story of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s late-night car wreck in 1969 that left 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne dead in the water. “Chappaquiddick” opens nationally in early April, but locals got a sneak peek this month at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.
Early in the movie, Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne leave a boozy reunion party for his deceased brother Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign staffers one year after his assassination. They’re all in mourning.
Kopechne and Kennedy pull away, park, talk about his political future and her past as a strategist. Soon Kennedy is driving them down a now infamous dirt road. Then Kopechne’s eyes widen, her hand flies up, and the car careens off a small bridge before plunging into the water. Her scream pierces the air.
The 37-year-old presidential hopeful escapes to the surface, dives down a few times looking for Kopechne, and ultimately flees. Hours before reporting the accident he makes a collect call to the family patriarch -- his dad, Joseph Kennedy -- and tells him what happened.
“It was an accident, and one of Bobby's secretaries is dead,” Ted Kennedy explains in the film. “And I was driving. No one else was involved. I’m OK. I had too much to drink, I just don’t know. I need your help, dad. I need it.”
What follows is a play-by-play of bad decisions and damage control. Seasoned political advisers including Robert McNamara and Ted Sorensen swoop in and encircle the young Kennedy like a Greek chorus, their dialogue often tinged with absurdist humor. He’s told, “There's not a lot of senators that are charged with manslaughter that go on to become president,” and that “a dead body holds a lot of secrets, those can be the difference between guilt and innocence. That’s what we need to be in control of.”
The loss of Kopechne’s life is swept under the rug.
This new movie plays like a thriller and a character study. But on the Vineyard, where I spoke with the team behind “Chappaquiddick,” it also feels like a ghost story.
“It is a ghost story,” Australian actor Jason Clarke agreed. With a lot of research, help from a voice coach and a set of convincing fake teeth the 48-year-old transformed himself into Ted Kennedy.
“This has haunted obviously the family, absolutely without a doubt — absolutely Ted and the Democratic Party, and American politics as a whole,” Clarke said. “You know, the only way to not be afraid of ghosts is to, you know, turn on the light and see if anybody's there.”
While many of the scenes involving the accident were shot in a controlled tank with a replica of the bridge, the production team wanted to shoot parts of the movie on Chappaquiddick.
“I just always felt that the island should be in the film,” Curran said, “that having the ghosts of that accident -- the famous intersection, the dirt road, the dike house, the bridge -- and it felt like, let's try to get the bedrock of iconic imagery from the island.”
As they prepared to film, the actor and director visited the notorious Dike Bridge at night.
“It's incredibly dark out there,” Curran recalled. “There's no ambient light, and both of us [were] trying to put ourselves in the position of Ted and Mary Jo — like what it would be like, you know, late at night, to suddenly find yourself upside down in a pond?”
But some people don’t want to relive a chapter of history that put Chappaquiddick on the map.
Margaret Knight, now 68, spent summers on "Chappy" as a kid and has lived on the 3-by-5-mile island since 1975. She kindly offered to pick me up at the dock after my five-minute ferry ride from Edgartown. Then we drove down the same route Kennedy and Kopechne traveled on that fateful night.
"We're going to head off on the road down to the Dike Bridge, which is a dirt road here,” Knight explained as we passed by a house where her relatives live.
Like a lot of longtime residents, Knight has strong feelings about the still-controversial incident and its aftermath.
“I don't really like talking about the accident and all of that time,” she said. “It was like a change of our lives — this whole thing totally changed our island.”
Before the tragedy Knight says Chappy was the sleepy, wild backyard off Edgartown. But after, tourists flocked to the see "the bridge" in droves, which she wrote about in a recent piece for the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette.
Some visitors even pulled off fragments of wood as souvenirs.
“I always wondered why they wanted to go see where someone died? But you know, it's something to look at,” she said before opening her car door so we could go look at it.
The wooden overpass was smaller than I expected. It’s been rebuilt with safety railings since 1969. The chilly winter waters lapped against its thick, submerged supports.
Now, Knight is wary about the shameful events being splashed on movie screens nationwide in a few short weeks. She’s not interested in seeing the re-telling. But plenty of other islanders were. About 350 people turned out for the two initial screenings at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.
At the post-show Q&A, audience members asked the filmmakers a lot of questions: about character development, dialogue and plot, which the screenwriters explained is based on Kennedy's testimony. The historical record has long been controversial, and at times the room got heated.
One life-long resident thanked the team for portraying Kennedy as, "the lying coward that he was." But another man pointed at the creators and angrily called “Chappaquiddick” "a cowardly movie."
In the lobby after the ruckus, Ginny Coutinho told me she was 25 and on the Vineyard in 1969. She said she didn't know what to think when she first heard about the film.
“I had mixed feelings about it," she said, "you know, about the fact why bring it up again? Why get people riled up about it again?”
Coutinho remembers back to how the moon landing overshadowed the tragedy and its aftermath in the news. That played a big part in “Chappaquiddick,” too. Now that she's seen the movie, the 74-year-old is viewing it as a piece of historically-informed entertainment that fleshes out the cast of characters involved — not just Kennedy.
“His family, his relationship with his father and with his cousin — that was all very interesting to me,” she shared. “And all the information about Mary Jo, which we never knew before. But still, how do we know the truth?”
In the film, Kopechne is depicted as a thoughtful, dedicated political staffer. Back in '69, news stories described her as an attractive, blonde 28-year-old.
“It was almost like Mary Jo Kopechne was an erased person,” Vineyard resident Alison Rose Levy said, adding that's why she appreciated the film’s more fleshed out characterization. “You know, in these times, that she could really emerge as a human being," Levy went on, "and that a young woman with that kind of integrity wound up a sacrifice of a powerful system, with all these men trying to strategize — I love seeing that story told with that element rather than her being so insignificant that she didn’t even exist.”
For his part, Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving personal injury and received a two-month suspended jail sentence. He went on to have an influential, more-than-40-year career in the U.S. Senate.
Almost 50 years after Kopechne's death, people are still frustrated by unanswered questions and theories about what really happened that dark, summer night on Chappaquiddick. Now moviegoers across the country can ponder them too, as the little island off Martha's Vineyard heads into the spotlight again.
This segment aired on March 26, 2018.