What Really Happened at Chappaquiddick? Fact vs. Fiction About Ted Kennedy Story in New Movie

On the the night of July 18, 1969, Massachusetts Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy got into an Oldsmobile and drove down a dark road on Chappaquiddick Island, a small slip of land near Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. At some point on his drive, the car careened off a bridge and toppled upside down into the Poucha Pond.

Kennedy, who was 37 at the time, survived. But when officials retrieved the vehicle from the water, they discovered in the backseat the lifeless body of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a political operative and one of Robert F. Kennedy's famous Boiler Room Girls.

The details of how the accident occurred, what the pair were doing together and why Kennedy was the only one who managed to make it out alive are as murky as the waters the car was found in. Even more unclear are the reasons behind Kennedy's hours-delayed decision to report the accident.

The speculation surrounding the tragic event, Kennedy's eventual guilty plea and his 17-minute televised-testimony explaining his "indefensible" side of the story serves as the inspiration behind Chappaquiddick. The film, which opens Friday, rehashes the night of Kopechne's death and everything that happened after the crash.

Starring Jason Clarke as Kennedy and Kate Mara as Kopechne, Chappaquiddick is based on a true story—but sensationalism is to be expected given the fact that Kennedy's own account has historically raised eyebrows over its truthfulness.

Simply put, nobody really knows what happened at Chappaquiddick, except Kopechne and Kennedy, both of whom are now dead. (Ted Kennedy died in 2009.) But here's how the film compares to the actual events—or, at least, what we know.

What Really on Happened Chappaquiddick? True Story vs. Movie
American Democratic politician Edward Kennedy at the signing of the Immigration Bill in New York on October 12, 1965. 'Chappaquiddick,' releasing on April 6, 2018, tells the story of Kennedy's infamous car crash in 1969 that killed Mary Jo Kopeckne. Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

The party

Just as the film depicts, Kennedy was in Martha's Vineyard for two reasons: to race in the Edgartown Regatta and throw a party for the Boiler Room Girls, the six women who worked on his brother Bobby Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign before his assassination. A few of Ted Kennedy's friends—only one of whom was single—along with cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and lawyer Paul Markham (played by Jim Gaffigan) were also at the party, which took place at a little cottage on Chappaquiddick Island. As depicted in the film, there was a steady flow of alcohol.

Kennedy heavily denied rumors of drunk driving when whispers of his alleged intoxication first emerged in 1969. In the movie he's seen throwing back stiff cocktails, but it also portrays Kennedy as lying about his liquor intake and saying he was simply hosting an innocent, booze-free cookout for a few devoted Kennedy campaign secretaries.

The joyride

Even in the film, it's not extremely clear why Kennedy and Kopechne left the party together. In real life, Kennedy alleged he was taking Kopechne to the ferry so she could get home; he makes the same assertion in the movie. The senator also categorically denied any "immoral conduct" behind their leaving the party together. "There has never been a private relationship between us of any kind," Kennedy was quoted in a 1969 Newsweek report.

He didn't mention how fast he was driving, but the film shows him speeding down the street, nearly crashing his vehicle before the actual accident even occured. A police officer he zooms past gets out of his vehicle to approach the car, but Kennedy reverses the vehicle and then pulls off. The cop goes back to his car but doesn't go chasing after them and is later seen in the movie looking shaken when he realizes the vehicle Kopechne drowned in is the same from the night before.

The premise of the scene appears to be derived from a 1979 Washington Post interview in which Edgartown police officer Christopher Look Jr. alleged that he told the police chief Dommick J. Arena that he saw Kennedy's car on a road an hour after Kennedy said the accident occurred. Look made no mention of speeding; rather, he said the driver of the vehicle appeared to be lost. That prompted him to get out of his car and see if they needed directions.

The cover-up

Just as the actually occurred, the movie shows Kennedy getting schooled on how to contain the scandal. The tragedy happened as the entire nation was obsessing over NASA's Apollo 11 mission, which made Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin the first people to walk on the moon. That gave the likes of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy speechwriter Tom Sorensen and several other Camelot men the time to do some stealthy crisis management. They tossed Kopechne's autopsy, finessed the press and kept Ted Kennedy confined to the Hyannis Port Kennedy estate. He only surfaced for Kopechne's funeral, wearing a neck brace, which the movie suggests was a ploy for empathy that Senator Kennedy came up with himself.

The speech

After pleading guilty to leaving the scene of the accident—which earned Kennedy a two-month suspended jail sentence—he addressed the nation publically for the first time. The movie shows him asking Gargan to write his resignation—a falsity in the film, according to a USA Today interviewwith executive producer Taylor Allen—but instead Kennedy recites the speech written for him by the Camelot men.