Anyone who remembers the events of what happened on July 18, 1969, on the Chappaquiddick section of Martha’s Vineyard probably still has their own version of those events rattling in their head. The story goes that Senator Ted Kennedy, not exactly sober, behind the wheel of his Oldsmobile, with Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign worker for his late brother Bobby, in the passenger seat, plunged off a wooden bridge and into a pond. The car turned upside down. Kennedy escaped. Kopechne drowned.

All of that is chronicled in the first 15 minutes of “Chappaquiddick.” The rest of the film focuses on what occurred afterward — on what Kennedy did or didn’t do; on what others in his circle, including friends and advisors were doing; on what the island’s police were trying to do. Truth is, almost 50 years after the accident and the series of confused missteps that went down following it, no one really knows what happened. The two people directly involved — Kennedy and Kopechne — are long gone, and the facts went with them.

In the film’s opening moments, Ted Kennedy (in an extremely convincing portrayal by Australian actor Jason Clarke) is doing a television interview, chatting about NASA’s moon shot that was in progress, as well as about the legacy of his late brother John Kennedy. To put some historical perspective on everything, this was taking place just a year after his brother Bobby had been assassinated. Ted was 37, and many people assumed he was being groomed for the presidency.

But things would change later on that Friday, after he arrived at his Vineyard cottage to party with friends and coworkers, along with the group of young campaign workers collectively known as the “Boiler Room Girls.”

The film wastes no time hinting that there was an attraction between Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and Ted. Nor does it shy away from the idea that he was driving drunk when they went out for a late-night ride. Was there something going on between them? Well, that isn’t answered in any concrete way.

But it’s clear, from a point shortly after the accident, that the script is not going to treat Kennedy with kid gloves. The perspective the film takes is that Kennedy did not know how to handle the situation. He made it back to the cottage, soaking wet, and enlisted the help of his cousin and family lawyer Joe Gargan (Ed Helms, playing a terrific serious role) and his friend, a former U.S. attorney Paul Markham (comedian Jim Gaffigan, also great).

Ted doesn’t know what to do, but is aware enough to say, out loud, “I’m not gonna be president.”

From there, the film is a study of everything that can go wrong, from not taking advice from the right people to avoiding responsibility to outright lying. It’s the story of, in the words of Joe Gargan, “another family tragedy.” Even though there’s a lot going on, and a lot of people involved in it, the story stays firmly fixed on Ted: He’s haunted by scenes in his head of what Mary Jo might have experienced underwater; he’s flummoxed by the errant behavior of his wheelchair-bound, really nasty father (Bruce Dern); he keeps trying to think his way through all of this, but seems to be desperate, in pain, kind of pathetic.

After his father brings in some “experts” to sort things out, questions start arising about whether there was negligence, if Ted could be charged with involuntary manslaughter, and in his own mind, if he can still be a viable presidential candidate.

The film covers the day of the accident and the week following it. Its most powerful scenes are those between Ted and his dad, who can only squeak out a word or two. The most telling scene is when Ted reveals more than he should about himself, saying to those experts, and convinced it’s the right way to go, “We will tell the truth, or at least our version of it.”

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Chappaquiddick”
Written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. Directed by John Curran
With Jason Clarke, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Bruce Dern, Kate Mara
Rated PG-13