For decades Ted Kennedy served in the U.S. Senate on behalf of the people of Massachusetts. He did so largely under a cloud of controversy stemming from an incident that took place in 1969 that always remained shrouded in mystery. Those events are revisited and retold in this week’s new film Chappaquiddick, named after the island where they transpired.
Jason Clarke stars as Ted, the scion of one of America’s oldest and most politically-powerful families and the one anointed as the next to ascend to high office after the deaths of his brothers John and Robert earlier in the decade. After an event honoring the women who worked on Robert’s presidential campaign, Ted and one of the women, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) go driving. When the car he’s driving skids off a bridge and into the river he escapes but she drowns and dies. Concerned about how this looks, Ted seems to be less than forthcoming with the truth while the rest of the family circles around him to protect what remains of the Kennedy name and legacy.
The American flag graces the first poster, showing the all-American nature of the family. The field of blue, though, has been turned into a body of water that has an upended car floating at the top conveying the tragic nature of the story being told.
The second poster does include the cast, shown here in line-up at the top of the one-sheet, the three Kennedy men given preference over the woman who died (which seems like an odd choice). After we’re promised this is “The untold true story” we see an image of a car floating upside down next to a bridge. So the audience is told, taking it all in total, that we’ll find out what actually happened with that car accident.
I have to wonder, though, how this is going to be received by anyone under the age of 40. How much does Chappaquiddick resonate with a younger audience and how much name recognition would it have? Is anyone in that cohort going to have any connection with the Kennedys or the incident that defined Ted’s life? I get that *is* a true story, I just don’t think taking that approach has any real relevance.
We open in the first trailer by seeing the car accident that will drive the story and which defined the rest of Ted Kennedy’s life. Soon everyone, including members of the Kennedy family and their advisors and lawyers, are gathered to hear what happened and determine a course of action moving forward. As everyone examines the options we cut between the spin that’s being managed and the investigation into the accident and the discovery of the young woman’s body. The Kennedys aren’t just thinking of Ted, they’re thinking of everyone, worried that his actions have put the whole dynasty in peril. It all ends with Ted about to give an on-camera statement regarding the incident.
There’s some good stuff here but the trailer suffers from an overall lack of flow. By that I mean it doesn’t really come together into a cohesive whole, opting instead to jump all over the place. It seems the editors went for an approach that contained the most dramatic dialogue deliveries instead of a single narrative through-line and while that’s fine, it’s not the strongest decision that could have been made.
The aspirations everyone has for Ted and he has for himself are what open the final trailer, along with him talking about how important family is. When Kopechne goes missing following an accident he was involved in everyone rallies around to protect Ted, who has failed to do some very basic things that would have helped establish his innocence. From there on out it’s about the repercussions of his actions on him and everyone around him.
Online and Social
Full-screen video along with some audio clips are what open up the official website, with a splash page that also includes a button encouraging visitors to watch the latest trailer. Hidden in the bottom right corner are links to the movie’s Facebook and Twitter profiles.
There’s no content menu to speak of, but if you scroll down the page you’ll be able to check out the posters, a story synopsis, a cast and crew list and more. Interspersed between that are bigger segments with large photos of key members of the cast along with the name of the person they’re playing in the film. There are also large signifier words like “Wealth” and “Power” that tell you something about the story. It’s not much but it’s alright. As usual I wish there were more here about the real story of what’s being depicted in the film. Some of that is included in what was shared on the social networks, with tidbits about the location of the crash, background on Kopechne and more.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A handful of TV spots, some long and some short, boiled down the value proposition to one that was mainly focused on the intrigue and maneuvering that happened in the wake of the crash. Some offered a bit more depending on the running time but that was the basic message. Some of those videos were also used as social media promoted posts. Elements of the key art, especially the American flag image, were used in other online ads.
Media and Publicity
The movie earned decent praise when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, with Clarke’s performance being called-out specifically as well as the objective, non-judgemental tone of the story. It was later programmed as one of the closing night features for AFI Fest. It doesn’t appear the movie screened there but the screenwriters stopped by SXSW to talk about the film and how they tried to get the story as right and respectful to the victim as possible.
Clarke was the major presence for the movie on the publicity circuit. This interview had him talking about how he tried to inhabit the persona of Ted Kennedy and get in his head. He also talked about how he and the filmmakers didn’t just want to take Kennedy down but explore what happened and get beyond the superficial knowledge people might have. Clarke and the rest of the cast commented on their various roles at the movie’s premiere while producer Byron Allen cryptically alluded to the pressure he received from “powerful people” who didn’t want the movie to be made.
Mara got an interview of her own where she talked more about the responsibility she felt in portraying Mary Jo and her desire to present her in a well-rounded way.
I’ll ask the same question I have in the past: How relevant is this story? I understand that this is the kind of incident that (hopefully) would completely shatter someone’s career in the current social climate, not result in a 40-year Senatorial career. But how much connection does anyone under 40 have to the Kenney mythos? Even in 1989 the relationship to that family seemed to be growing thin, as exemplified by the “Ted Kennedy was shot?” joke in When Harry Met Sally.
So the publicity campaign in particular has tried to position this not so much about a political dynasty from the history books and more as a procedural drama. The focus is on the investigation into the incident and the family’s reaction to both, which is more of a universal idea than one that is heavy on the Kennedy legacy. There’s still plenty of that to be found here, though.
I’m a bit surprised, then, that Mara isn’t more central to the publicity. You’d think if there was one way to make the story relevant to today’s audience it would have been to talk less about Clarke portraying Kennedy and more about her wanting to do right by Mary Jo Kopechne and educate a younger audience on who she was and why she deserves to have her story told. That’s the primary shortcoming in the campaign.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.