Mary Jo Kopechne's Family: She Was No 'Wide-Eyed Idealist'

Film 'Chappaquiddick' revisits her 1969 death in Ted Kennedy's car
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 5, 2018 2:48 PM CDT
Mary Jo Kopechne's Family: She Was No 'Wide-Eyed Idealist'
This image released by Entertainment Studios shows Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy, left, and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in a scene from "Chappaquiddick."   (Claire Folger/Entertainment Studios via AP)

Chappaquiddick is back in the headlines again, thanks to the release on Friday of a movie based on the infamous 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne. The 28-year-old died after she left a party on Chappaquiddick Island with Ted Kennedy, whose Oldsmobile went off an island bridge and plunged into a tidal pond. Kennedy escaped the car, later saying he dove repeatedly in an unsuccessful attempt to save Kopechne, who never made it out. Kennedy then waited 10 hours to report the incident, and his car wasn't pulled out of the water until the next morning. The movie explores these events, making some leaps of its own about Kennedy's behavior. Details:

  • The basics: USA Today has a primer on the incident, the movie (starring Jason Clarke as Kennedy and Kate Mara as Kopechne), and context about the era and the Kennedy clan. (RFK had been killed about a year earlier.) Producers Taylor Allen, 34, and Andrew Logan, 35, say the film (which alleges a cover-up orchestrated by patriarch Joe Kennedy) is neither pro- nor anti-Kennedy.
  • About Kopechne: She worked on Robert Kennedy's campaign and in the civil rights movement, and her family is pleased her fuller story is being told. "She was not a wide-eyed Capitol Hill staffer," write her aunt and cousin in USA Today. "She was a 28-year-old seasoned idealist in a time when everything seemed possible." They see all this as "the classic American tragedy."

  • The key moments: "The critical unknowns in this awful story—how long Kopechne survived inside the car, and whether Kennedy could have saved her by calling help at once—are decided for us here by the filmmakers," writes Jenna Russell at the Boston Globe. The film (in what could be Kennedy's imagination) depicts Kopechne alive in the car, surviving in an air pocket as she cries and prays. Kennedy, meanwhile, makes it to land fairly quickly, and Kopechne's struggles are contrasted with him soaking in a tub and dressing "nattily."
  • 'Boiler room girls': Kopechne was one of six female staffers on RFK's campaign dubbed the "boiler room girls" for their work in a windowless room. The other five were at the same island party, and they have remained mum over the years despite the lure of payouts for tell-alls, reports the Washington Post. "The boiler room girls, on-screen and in real life, remain frustratingly out of focus," writes Dan Zak.
  • One speaks: One of the surviving "boiler room girls," literary agent Esther Newberg, hates the movie. "It was frustrating to read the screenplay and see one thing made up after another, and in no way can they attest to any of it because they weren’t there and they didn’t speak to anybody who was," she tells People.
  • Different test: AO Scott of the New York Times is OK with the movie taking liberties. "The test that Chappaquiddick sets for itself is not accuracy but plausibility," he writes. "Whether or not events actually unfolded this way, the story the film tells is an interesting and complicated character study, with something to say about the corrosive effects of power and privilege on both the innocent and the guilty."
(Read more Chappaquiddick stories.)

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