The Senator

 

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A clear-headed account of a dramatic event that never really faded away. 

 
Senator, The

Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne

 

When Edward 'Ted' Kennedy died in 2009 he was third on the list of America's longest-serving senators, yet things might have turned out very differently. Back in 1969 he had been involved in an accident that looked set to destroy his political prospects which at that time had included the hope of becoming President. The accident in question gained such notoriety that it immortalised the place where it happened - indeed the original title of The Senator was Chappaquiddick. It was there that a drunken Ted Kennedy drove his car off the Dike Bridge on 18th July 1969 leading to the death of the woman who was his companion in that vehicle, the 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. She was a campaign strategist who had worked for Bobby, his late lamented brother, and was being seen as somebody who might now assist Ted. Despite being aware that Mary Jo had been fatally trapped in the car, Ted would delay reporting the accident to the police and, realising that the incident could bring an end to his political career, he had initially pretended that it had been Mary Jo and not he himself who had been driving.

 

The Senator is a portrait of Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) but one which plays out during the course of the single week following the accident. As written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, it could be described as a film about family. It offers an intelligent re-enactment of events seeking throughout to be level-headed and to avoid any conjecture or embellishment of the facts that could have led the portrayal into sensationalism or melodrama. Kennedy’s bad behaviour is never played down but the film does offer reasons for not just condemning him out of hand. We see how, being the youngest brother and one overshadowed by the achievements of his siblings, he could but feel burdened by the weight of expectation on him as the man required to carry the Kennedy family banner following the tragic and untimely deaths of both John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.

 

If belonging to the Kennedy family is seen to shape Ted Kennedy, no less do we find it a matter of 'family' when major Kennedy supporters rally round after the accident determined to act strategically to limit the damage. Ted's aged father, Joseph (Bruce Dern), may have to take a back seat being eighty years old and virtually bereft of speech due to a stroke, but even so he clearly expects everyone to fall into line over how much is admitted and when (thankfully for the family the Apollo moon landing was taking place at this very moment and would dominate the press headlines). At the outset Ted counts on the help of his cousin and chief fixer, Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), and on the Attorney General of Massachusetts (Jim Gaffigan) while the local police chief (John Fiore) is suitably respectful because a Kennedy is involved. Bigger names soon come into it too seeking to advise and to influence how events would play out: among them were Robert McNamara (Chancy Brown) the former Secretary of Defence and the lawyer Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols).

 

Late on in The Senator minor missteps occur. The last scenes could be more succinct to advantage, a big scene between Ted and his father is one of the very few passages in which the film takes on a somewhat fictional tone and it is weird that the end credits should be accompanied by a song on the soundtrack. However, when it comes to the acting there are no doubts at all. While it is inevitable that by focusing on Ted Kennedy The Senator should make Mary Jo Kopechne only a subsidiary figure, Kate Mara's portrayal of her is particularly sympathetic. As for Dern's cameo (it is hardly more than that), it is a triumph. Helms and Brown also stand out, but even so the film belongs to Jason Clarke in the title role. His performance is so outstanding that it makes it all the more surprising that we have had to wait so long for this film to be released here (it was made in 2017).

 

This delay leads one to assume that British distributors took the view that, regardless of the fame that Mary Jo's death brought to Chappaquiddick, the story is too old to hold interest for viewers outside of America. But that is surely not the case even if the film's thoughtful and apt approach may lead some to regard this as a film lacking in dramatic power. Admittedly The Senator never quite feels like a masterpiece, but if I call it dispassionate in tone I use that word as a compliment rather than as a criticism. Indeed it is the film's refusal to oversimplify and to present this simply as a story of villainy that encourages one to make a thoughtful appraisal and in achieving that it avoids any danger of the film feeling like a whitewash. John Curran, the director, has done a very good job here and, whatever the extent of your interest in Ted Kennedy, Jason Clarke provides a treat for anybody who responds to acting that without ever being showy is deeply, deeply expressive. The Senator is a film that I recommend.

 

Original title: Chappaquiddick.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Olivia Thirlby, Taylor Nichols, John Fiore, Tim Jackson, Charlotte Anne Dore, Bill Humphreys, Jon Chase, Thomas Kee.

 

Dir John Curran, Pro Mark Ciardi, Chris Cowles and Campbell McInnes, Screenplay Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, Ph Maryse Alberti, Pro Des John P. Goldsmith, Ed Keith Fraase, Music Garth Stevenson, Costumes David C. Robinson.

 

Apex Entertainment/Chimney LA Inc/DMG Entertainment/Film i Väst-Signature Entertainment.
106 mins. USA/Sweden. 2017. Rel: 19 March 2021. Available on Amazon Prime Video. Cert. 12.