BOSTON — During a week in which the eyes of the nation were focused on NASA’s first moon landing, a tragic drama played out on a tiny Massachusetts island that would have political ramifications for decades to follow.
The late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy’s actions, explanations and motives in the hours and days after a car he was driving slipped off Chappaquiddick’s Dike Bridge on July 18, 1969, killing Mary Jo Kopechne, have been explored in numerous articles, books and documentaries. Now, the groundwork is being laid for an independent feature film that will perhaps rekindle questions lingering for nearly a half-century.
Australian-born “Zero Dark Thirty” star Jason Clarke will portray Kennedy in “Chappaquiddick” — the film’s working title — and John Curran, whose credits include “The Painted Veil,” will direct, said the movie’s co-producer and Apex Entertainment president and chief executive Mark Ciardi. Production is slated to begin around Labor Day with a tentative release in late 2017.
“In some parts it will be educational, that, wow, in 1969 this happened, with the moon landing in the backdrop, this event happened and how everything kind of played out after that,” said Ciardi, noting that younger generations may know little about the story.
Concentrating on the immediate aftermath of the accident, the film will contain elements of political and legal intrigue, but Ciardi adds: “I certainly wouldn’t characterize it as just a political movie at all.”
Kennedy went to Martha’s Vineyard to race in the Edgartown Regatta and that evening attended a party at a rented house on serene and picturesque Chappaquiddick, which is separated from the Vineyard by a narrow strait and accessed by a small, barge-like ferry. Guests included Kennedy friends and several women, including Kopechne, who had worked on the presidential campaign of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated a year earlier.
Kennedy and Kopechne, 28, left the party together and a short time later the car plunged into Poucha Pond. Kennedy escaped from the submerged vehicle and said he made several futile attempts to rescue Kopechne, who was trapped inside.
Kennedy, who later described his failure to report the incident to police for nine hours as “indefensible,” pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a two-month suspended sentence. A grand jury was convened but no indictments were returned.
Chappaquiddick would cast a long shadow over Kennedy’s storied U.S. Senate career and likely helped thwart hopes of winning the presidency.
In his memoir, “True Compass,” published shortly after his death from brain cancer in 2009, Kennedy acknowledged that many people remained skeptical and others “contemptuous” of his explanations surrounding the accident.
“I’ve had to live with that guilt for 40 years,” Kennedy wrote. “But my burden is nothing compared to her (Kopechne) loss and the suffering her family had to endure.”
Producers are currently scouting locations for filming, according to Ciardi, who would not say if Chappaquiddick itself was a possible site.
Local officials say no request has been made to film on the island, which has changed little over time. The only vague reminder of the long-ago events are guardrails added to Dike Bridge to help prevent similar tragedies.
Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, did not return a call seeking comment on the film.
Ciardi said he has not reached out to the Kennedy family and isn’t concerned about any potential backlash.
“What you try to do is have a portrayal of a story that, you know, feels fair and accurate,” he said.