Edward Kennedy 'Chappaquiddick' retells scandal that changed America

The accident at a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, an upscale resort off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, indelibly stained Kennedy's reputation and destroyed his chances of entering the White House.

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Actors (L-R) Jason Clarke, Kate Mara and Ed Helms arrive on the red carpet for the premiere of "Chappaquiddick" in Beverly Hills, California play

Actors (L-R) Jason Clarke, Kate Mara and Ed Helms arrive on the red carpet for the premiere of "Chappaquiddick" in Beverly Hills, California

(AFP/File)
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US Senator Edward Kennedy went to his death in 2009 haunted by his role in the drowning of a young woman 40 years earlier after he crashed their car.

The accident at a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, an upscale resort off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, indelibly stained Kennedy's reputation and destroyed his chances of entering the White House.

"It was the event that changed the course of Teddy Kennedy's career," said John Curran, the director of "Chappaquiddick," a new movie delving into the mysterious events surrounding a tragedy that has enthralled America for half a century.

Speaking at the premiere in Beverly Hills ahead of the movie's US release on Friday, Curran described himself as a fan of Kennedy.

"I do realize I've had this sort of blind spot about this episode in his life and it just felt time to re-examine it honestly," said the 57-year-old film-maker.

Kennedy boasted a rich family political legacy linked to an era of civil rights gains as brother of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

The Massachusetts senator's own legislative achievements since his election in 1962 at age 30 helped craft his legacy as one of the most accomplished lawmakers in US history.

In "True Compass," his memoir published weeks after his death in 2009, Kennedy stuck to his assertion that Mary Jo Kopechne's death on July 18, 1969 was an accident.

Heavy drinking

US President John F. Kennedy(R) with his brothers, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy(L), and Senator Edward Kennedy, posing outside the Oval Office at the White House on August 28, 1963 play

US President John F. Kennedy(R) with his brothers, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy(L), and Senator Edward Kennedy, posing outside the Oval Office at the White House on August 28, 1963

(NATIONAL ARCHIVES/AFP/File)

Critics have long speculated that the last of the four Kennedy brothers was drunk-driving and left the dead or dying 28-year-old campaign worker behind to cover his tracks and save his fledgling career.

Kennedy, who had offered Kopechne a ride home from a party, swam to safety after the crash but left her trapped in his Oldsmobile, lying on its roof in shallow water.

In his memoir Kennedy described his despair and heavy drinking after the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy, in 1963 and 1968.

He admitted it was "inexcusable" that he did not report the accident to police until Kopechne's body was recovered the following day but denied driving under the influence of alcohol, or any affair.

He ultimately won sympathy for the extraordinary litany of tragedies in his family, but his hopes of following JFK into the Oval Office were figuratively and literally dead in the water.

He did make a White House run in 1980, but failed in his bid to challenge then-president Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party nomination.

Before age slowed him down, Kennedy was known for years as a cavorter and skirt-chaser, infamous for his drinking and disastrous divorce after a stormy marriage to his first wife, Joan Bennett Kennedy.

'Hard to forgive'

Democratic US Senator Edward Kennedy, pictured in 2007, was known for years as a cavorter and skirt-chaser, before age slowed him down play

Democratic US Senator Edward Kennedy, pictured in 2007, was known for years as a cavorter and skirt-chaser, before age slowed him down

(AFP/File)

"I was desperate to play this part and I'm very proud of what we did, what we've made," said Jason Clarke ("Everest," "Mudbound"), who plays Kennedy.

"This film is going to stand the test of time."

Clarke, 48, described the senator's fleeing the scene as "hard to forgive, if it's forgivable" but added, "that's human and that's life."

The actor said Kennedy's legislative accomplishments stood the test of time.

"What he stood for is on the right side of history: education, civil rights, so many things."

Kennedy admitted leaving the scene of an accident at Chappaquiddick and received a suspended two-month jail sentence.

Kopechne's parents -- who both died before Kennedy -- received a $141,000 settlement from the senator's insurance company.

But they revealed on the 25th anniversary of the accident in 1994 that Kennedy had never apologized directly to them for the death of their only daughter.

"When I was sent this script I couldn't put it down," said Kate Mara ("Fantastic Four," "The Martian"), who portrayed Kopechne.

"I think like a lot of people from my generation, I didn't know very much about this specific incident and I thought it was an important story to tell."

Mara, 35, said she was proud to be part of a movie providing a glimpse -- albeit brief -- into the life of a woman who, half a century after her death, has been largely forgotten by history.

"I think she has been treated unfairly in the past with the press and the way she was portrayed after her death," Mara said.

"So I'm happy to tell just a part of her story."

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