Most of us will know about the tragic shooting of JFK but, I feel, it’s less likely in the UK we’re aware of the Kennedy family and their seemingly ‘cursed’ family name though. The Senator tells us the real-life story of Ted Kennedy’s (played here by Jason Clarke) tragic weekend away on the island of Chappaquiddick and the death of a political colleague. Honestly, this wasn’t something I knew much about while The Senator does have its moments of interest, mainly when it reveals what people do in politics to get away with something, it doesn’t hold a lot of intensity and ends up feeling more like docudrama than a serious thriller.
The Senator, called Chappaquiddick on its US release, tells us the true tale of Senator Ted Kennedy who, on July 18 1969, accidentally drove his car off a bridge on the Island. Even though Ted escaped, the event caused the death of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara who mainly appears in flashbacks), who was in the car with him. The film investigates the story around her death and the huge mistake that Ted made by not reporting it until 10 hours later.
As well as some sluggish pacing, The Senator lacks a little in context for audiences outside of the US. If you head into the movie, written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, with only half-knowledge over the events, you’re not really introduced to any context or relationship between the many characters we met. For me this always asks the question: Why we should care for anyone or who they are to each other? Because of this, I wonder if it would have worked better as a two or three-part TV show. Without deeper meaning, we don’t get much sense of any remorse and, occasionally, it feels like the story is being pulled out to fit the running time. This is important because a woman died, but because Ted’s team are so bumbling, you don’t really feel compassion or hate towards anything. Mainly, you just take in the story as a separate entity of being a viewer.
Saying this, Jason Clarke is poised and precise as Ted Kennedy and although shows signs of self-preservation throughout, I never found his performance excessive or intolerable, his Ted is torn between the desire to keep his family legacy live – as he’s the only brother left – and wanting to do the right thing. But that doesn’t come naturally to him at all, maybe years of self-confidence or belief in the family name took him beyond his natural honesty.
Bruce Dern is an interesting choice as the elderly Kennedy and has suffered a stroke, he comes across as an unlikeable, angry, controlling father even though he doesn’t have much control in his own life anymore. It also features notable performances from the likes of Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan but it’s Clarke who leads the way, who gives us another strong piece of work for his varied resume.
While The Senator raises a lot of questions, and offers half-answers to situations, there’s not much in terms of conclusions to what happened on that day. If you’re looking for that kind of drama, I don’t think you’ll find anything different here. The film feels too procedural in places, going through the motions without taking sides, how very political… you might think. So although we’re offered a solid base for an interesting political drama, it never quite lives up the intensity or intrigue of similar true-life stories and disappointingly becomes easy to forget.