Jason Clarke spends much of Chappaquiddick with his mouth slightly open, as if he's struggling to express feelings he can't sort out. Whenever he talks, he never seems entirely satisfied. In director John Curran's film, Clarke plays Ted Kennedy in the moments before and after he drove his car into a tidal pond on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha's Vineyard, in 1969. Ted survived, but his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), did not.
Kopechne had worked for Bobby Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, and before the accident, she and five other women from the campaign were invited to Chappaquiddick Island for a party with Ted and five other married men that was framed as a reunion, though it's hard not to sense the sexual undertones. During the party, Ted and Mary Jo get in Ted's car. Ted would later insist that he was driving to the ferry so they could leave the island and, separately, retire for the night. Chappaquiddick suggests he was drunk and historians believe they were headed for a tryst on the beach.
After the accident, Ted, a Massachusetts senator who hoped to run in the next presidential election, doesn't know how to respond—whether to be honest and report the accident, blame Mary Jo, stay silent, or resign. That's why you notice his mouth. Clarke lets you know that Ted can't square his head and his heart, or figure out what's in either. He never really does, but a well-dressed army of lawyers, public relations men, and political operatives come up with an alternative. Most of them are friends of Joe (Bruce Dern), the Kennedy family patriarch, and their disinterest in the moral implications of Ted's actions lets you know that they've done this before.
But Ted hasn't, and Clarke suggests that the senator is conflicted—about the scandal, about his profession, and about being a Kennedy. So he leaves his mouth open and sets his eyes with the distant look of a man who's always a little lost in his head. That's the main idea behind Clarke's compelling performance, which he delivers with a kind of sculptural precision. But he doesn't hint at Ted's inner life beyond that one idea. Surely, even a man under duress has more than one thought on his mind.
Thankfully, Curran does. The default setting for a film about political scandal is to have characters conduct an endless stream of conversation and frame them in tight shots that make their environments irrelevant. An office here, a ritzy hotel room there—it's all table dressing. Curran does more than that. He knows how to frame a face and setting so that they can be expressive, rather than merely functional. When Ted and his consultants huddle in Joe's living room, you can feel the sterile, museum-like quality a certain kind of upper-class home has. And when Ted takes a break from scheming to fly a kite on an empty, private beach, you may wonder if all that space might make someone feel more lonely than relaxed. Working in a genre that can use visual and verbal density as a crutch, Curran creates room for his characters to think and feel and an environment that encourages his audience to do the same. The result is a film that can make a point without turning it into a sermon.