WILKES-BARRE — About 40 members of Mary Jo Kopechne’s family watched a private screening of the soon-to-be released movie, “Chappaquiddick,” and when it was over, most had even more questions about what happened on July 18, 1969, than they did before.
Kopechne, a Luzerne County native who would have turned 29 on July 26, 1969, died when the 1967 Oldsmobile she was riding in, driven by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, went off a narrow, unlit bridge into Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island, just off Martha’s Vineyard, near the town of Edgartown.
Kennedy managed to extricate himself from the vehicle and survived, but Kopechne died in the submerged vehicle.
The movie’s scheduled release date is April 6.
While nearly all of the family members felt the movie was well done and that Mary Jo was portrayed in a respectful manner, they remain doubtful that the true story of what happened that night on Chappaquiddick Island will ever be known.
And they all believe that if it weren’t for the powerful influence of the Kennedy family, perhaps Kennedy would have been treated differently and the investigation would have provided far more answers.
“First of all, Mary Jo had blue eyes,” said Georgetta Nelson Potoski, Mary Jo’s first cousin and friend who has always been protective of Mary Jo. Actress Kate Mara, who plays the role of Mary Jo, has brown eyes.
Nelson Potoski and her son, William Nelson, authored a book about Mary Jo — “Our Mary Jo” — that was published in 2014. Proceeds from the book are used to fund a scholarship in Mary Jo’s memory at Misericordia University in Dallas.
The book tells the reader about Mary Jo’s life, but it doesn’t discuss Chappaquiddick — it details who she was, what she liked and even speculates on what she would be doing today at age 77.
Nelson Potoski and her son said their opinions about Kennedy, who died in 2009, and the Kennedy family have never changed.
“He was always only interested in saving his own neck,” Nelson Potoski said. “We would recommend that people go see the movie to see what that family was all about.”
After the movie, the family members expressed the lingering frustration they have with the remaining unanswered questions surrounding Mary Jo’s death and the level of Kennedy’s culpability.
“That’s why we always turn the focus to who Mary Jo was away from Chappaquiddick,” Nelson Potoski said. “We would have liked to have seen more of that in the movie.”
Several times during the one hour and 47-minute movie, there were several scenes that were difficult to watch — especially for family members and those who knew Mary Jo well.
And there were scenes that depicted Mary Jo’s funeral on July 22, 1969, at St. Vincent’s Church in Plymouth, attended by Kennedy, his wife, Joan, and sister-in-law Ethel, widow of Robert F. Kennedy. Mary Jo’s parents, Gwen and Joe Kopechne, are also depicted in the film. The family was quick to note that “Uncle Joe” never smoked, as seen in the movie.
As far as actor Jason Clarke’s portrayal of Kennedy, Nelson Potoski said, “He came across like the kind of person he was.”
William Nelson, known to family as Bill, welcomed relatives into the theater at Wilkes-Barres Movies 14 prior to the movie’s start.
“This by no means is a happy occasion,” he said. “This is very tough subject matter. Mary Jo certainly gave us a lot of great memories that are priceless.”
Nelson and his mother provided the film’s writers with information about Mary Jo, but they weren’t sure how much of it was actually used in the making of the movie.
Nelson Potoski smiled when she recalled a family vacation in Florida in 1967 when Mary Jo joined them for some fun in the sun. She said it was Mary Jo’s last real vacation.
“Where do we go from here?” Nelson Potoski pondered after the movie titles ended. “It would be nice to know how she really died.”
Nelson Potoski and her son said the movie doesn’t provide many answers, only more questions that will linger as they have for nearly 49 years.
“The movie is just a depiction of what could have happened that night,” Nelson Potoski said.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.