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The Kennedy family built up a public mythology. TV and movies are taking it apart.

Chappaquiddick tackles scandal through the lens of Ted Kennedy’s privilege. But it’s not the only portrayal to poke holes in the Kennedy mythos.

Jason Clarke plays Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick
Chappaquiddick, Jackie, The Crown, and Bobby Kennedy for President all look at the Kennedy mythology through a critical lens.
Clare Folger/Bridgewater Picture Finance
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

A country that prides itself on having no royalty still craves families to venerate. And so America’s most written-about and mythologized family is, inarguably, the Kennedys.

No wonder. From the stern, larger-than-life patriarch to the large brood of handsome children and beautiful grandchildren, many of whom rose to power and many of whom met mysteriously tragic ends, the entire saga seems ripped straight from some classic template — Shakespeare, maybe, or Homer, or Chekhov.

The Kennedys themselves — particularly John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie — seemed to know how to harness the power of TV to build their own mythology. But many adaptations of their story, especially of late, are more interested in dismantling that same mythology, or at least taking a peek behind the curtain.

The new feature film Chappaquiddick, which opened in theaters on April 6, is one among several onscreen Kennedy portrayals that are most interested in what made the enduring myth possible. In doing so, it joins films like Jackie, TV episodes like The Crown’s “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” and the upcoming Netflix documentary series Bobby Kennedy for President in seeing the Kennedys as the ideal lens through which midcentury America can be refracted.

Chappaquiddick shows how privilege skews our notions of justice

Chappaquiddick, directed by John Curran, stars Jason Clarke as Sen. Ted Kennedy during one of the moments that would seem to define a career: the night in 1969 in which he drove his car off a bridge in Martha’s Vineyard. Both he and Mary Jo Kopechne (played by Kate Mara), a staffer on his late brother Robert’s campaign, were in the car that night. He got out; Mary Jo didn’t.

He failed to report the accident to police for 10 hours. Eventually, the car was found by fishermen, with the suffocated Mary Jo in it. It was a scandal and a tragedy, one in a long line of both for the Kennedys.

But why Kennedy failed to report the accident for so long has never been firmly established. He maintained that he suffered a concussion and was disoriented. But other theories flew, speculations that ranged from driving under the influence of alcohol (which he denied) to an extramarital affair.

Jason Clarke plays Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick
Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick.
Claire Folger/Bridgewater Picture Finance

Chappaquiddick is skeptical of Kennedy’s version of events, though it doesn’t buy into the more sensational renditions either. But the movie is much less interested in the details of the story than it is in how it got cleaned up by the Kennedy machine, and how, although Ted Kennedy’s presidential prospects were dashed, he still managed to be reelected to the Senate and stay there for 40 more years, until his death in 2009.

What Chappaquiddick portrays is a massive legal and publicity engine — one familiar with crisis — spinning up to handle a potentially career-ending event and salvage Ted Kennedy’s political future, despite his gaffes (like wearing a neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral to garner public sympathy, a ruse the papers see through easily since his range of motion seems unhindered). Armies of lawyers as well as Kennedy’s closest friends and advisers (played by Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan) come together to protect a man from the consequences of his actions — even those that are due more to neglect than to intentional wrongdoing, in the film’s rendition of events.

The story Chappaquiddick tells, then, is about how privilege works in America, particularly if you are white, wealthy, and from a well-known family. That Ted Kennedy got different treatment than virtually anyone else in America would in the same position is obvious — even if the version of events in the film is different from what really happened (something nobody knows). And no matter what happened, Kennedy got away with something because he was a Kennedy — that much is clear — which is a striking indictment of a country that still tells itself stories about equal justice under the law for every citizen.

Jackie shows what it takes to create a myth in real time

That life of privilege was certainly the product of patriarch Joe Kennedy’s wealth and influence, but it also had much to do with the web the family managed to spin around it. Ted Kennedy was a benefactor of that.

Maintaining his image, according to Chappaquiddick, was a task that mostly leaned on making the public think of Kopechne’s death as part of the Kennedys’ long and tragic history, rather than a crime. And that required relying on an image of the Kennedys as upstanding, clean-cut, even glamorous public servants.

Natalie Portman played Jackie Kennedy in Jackie
Natalie Portman played Jackie Kennedy in Jackie.
Fox Searchlight

An image like that has to be spun carefully, something that the 2016 film Jackie explores in depth by following Jackie Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) in the days following her husband’s assassination.

In the midst of paralyzing grief, she also realizes that to secure JFK’s position in history she’ll need to take some pages out of the playbook of other important political figures. So she models his funeral on Lincoln’s, even though it seems like that move may be far out of proportion to his accomplishments, and even though others object.

It works. And — at least according to Jackie — that impulse for image-painting was a special talent possessed by the first lady, who was by nature shy but had an instinctive knack for charming a crowd, whether in person or on TV (where she brought the nation on a tour of the White House). The whole film is framed as a tightly controlled interview with a reporter, whom she informs that it is she who will have final say about what makes it into the article — not him.

Jackie sees Jackie Kennedy as a talented myth-spinner, someone who knew that the most important part of being remembered is less about what you do and more about what images people remember. But the movie suggests this is not just a calculated effort to endure in the history books — it was a move for self-preservation, a way of keeping the truth of their lives from overtaking the more beautiful fiction.

In The Crown, all is not glorious in Camelot

That same talent for image-making is the subject of “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” a second-season episode of the Netflix series The Crown in which the president and the first lady (played by Michael C. Hall and Jodi Balfour) visit Buckingham Palace, following a triumphant visit to Paris for Jackie and a considerably less triumphant one for JFK. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip receive them at an “informal dinner,” during which the men in the room virtually stumble over one another to talk to the first lady.

But Elizabeth takes Jackie on a tour of the palace, and they strike up, if not a friendship, some sort of understanding, predicated on their mutual shyness and dislike of the public life into which they’ve been thrust not entirely by choice. Later, however, Elizabeth catches word of some derogatory things about the palace and herself that Jackie said at a party in London and is distressed.

Michael C. Hall, Jodi Balfour, Claire Foy, and Matt Smith playing JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, and Prince Phillip in The Crown
Michael C. Hall, Jodi Balfour, Claire Foy, and Matt Smith playing JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, and Prince Philip in The Crown.

That distress is the impetus for Elizabeth to embark on a diplomatic trip to Ghana that results in a resounding victory for her, both politically and in the press. And, the episode suggests, it was some latent feeling of needing to not be shown up by Jackie Kennedy that prompted the move.

But the episode, set in the weeks before JFK’s assassination, also focuses on what could have been going on behind the scenes with the Kennedys. There are drug injections from the couple’s doctor, designed to keep them going during grueling diplomatic trips. There are the women who swarm around JFK, and there’s his hot temper and the Kennedys’ failing marriage.

The glowing, glamorous image is a bit of a facade in The Crown’s version of John and Jackie Kennedy. All is not well in Camelot. But even a shy and unhappy Jackie knows how to sustain the image, and Elizabeth notes this while she’s watching footage following the assassination. Her mother remarks that they should have gotten Jackie some new clothes to wear, rather than the famously blood-stained suit. “I think it’s deliberate,” Elizabeth says. Something for the nation to remember. What we see is what we think is true.

Michael C. Hall and Jodi Balfour play the Kennedys in The Crown
Michael C. Hall and Jodi Balfour play the Kennedys in The Crown.

Bobby Kennedy for President looks at evolving in the public eye

Sometimes the remembering is the problem, of course. Dawn Porter’s four-episode documentary series Bobby Kennedy for President, which premieres on Netflix on April 27, grapples with what it was like to be Robert F. Kennedy and running for president both in the shadow of your brother and on his shoulders.

Through archival footage, interviews with RFK’s advisers and friends, and commentary from activists and historians, Bobby Kennedy for President explores one of the most interesting questions that come from RFK’s career: What does it mean to be both a politician in the public eye and a man whose opinions and values are constantly evolving?

Bobby Kennedy for President looks at Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign, cut short by his assassination.
Bobby Kennedy for President looks at Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign, cut short by his assassination.

The series does this by tracking Kennedy’s reputation and early image while working with Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy, then as his brother’s attorney general, and later in his capacity as a vocal promoter of civil rights and progressive ideals. It’s easy to see why he was inspiring to many, and the series captures both who he was (arguably in a way that seems at times a bit too uncritical) and, more importantly, what the nation saw in him.

The final episode explores the fallout after his assassination, particularly whether it was possible for the justice system to act impartially when dealing with Sirhan Sirhan, the man accused of shooting him. Could the man who shot RFK ever really get a fair trial in America? Would the country even want that?

That’s related to the question raised by Chappaquiddick: In America, could a Kennedy ever be treated like just another citizen? And why not? The answer lies in wealth and stature, of course. But as all of these portrayals of the family make clear, the Kennedy mythology was just as much about an image that was created on screens and in photographs — and one that, for better or worse, continues to be challenged and reimagined in those same media. Even the most carefully cultivated public image can’t protect you forever.

Chappaquiddick opened in theaters on April 6. Bobby Kennedy for President premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25 and on Netflix on April 27.

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