IT may sound like a boys-only version of a Harry Potter game but Chappaquiddick was actually the site of a defining moment in US history. Without the notorious incident recounted skilfully here by director John Curran, another Kennedy, the last of the famous brothers, might well have ended up in the White House.
Instead, a fabled family story of dynastic rule and extravagant gifts and charisma was stymied at the last hurdle.
Nevertheless, Ted (Australian actor Jason Clarke) gives every indication of fighting his destiny, as events unfold on the eve of the moon landing, July 18, 1969.
He is acutely aware of the brilliance of brother John, whose vision led to that epochal Armstrong moment.
He makes his misgivings known to distant father Joe Sr (Bruce Dern), now afflicted by a stroke.
It’s at a party in a rented house on Chappaquiddick Island with Bobby’s legacy in mind that everything unravels.
It’s a reunion of many of Bobby’s campaign workers. The married Ted is particularly taken at the thought of catching up with 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), one of Bobby’s strategists, whose assassination has stopped her career in its tracks.
Kennedy leaves the party to give Kopechne a ride to the ferry, a ride that takes a wrong turn in every way.
Mary Jo is killed, Ted is evasive and seemingly morally weak and malleable, saved from the worst of fates only by strategists and fixers. If anything, the one seemingly moral presence is his favourite fixer, cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms).
This is where the trauma for the filmgoer becomes acute. We are so inured to an age of dissembling and outright deceit, much of it happening in real time as this reviewer writes these words, much of it emanating from that very beacon of democracy, the White House.
Sadly, the events that unfolded almost 50 years ago documented here are unlikely to lighten our mood but might shine a light on the qualities required to lead others through troubled times.THE ESSENTIALS
Directed by: John Curran
Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms
Review by: Martin Turner
In cinemas now.