On 18th July 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts travelled to the island of Chappaquiddick with his cousin Joe and the state’s District Attorney Paul Markham to take part in an annual sailing regatta. Once the race concluded, they, a collection of Ted’s friends, and the Boiler Room Girls (former campaign staffers for the recently-assassinated Robert Kennedy) gathered at a rented cottage for a party together. At some point after midnight, Ted and Mary Jo Kopechne, one of the Boiler Room Girls, left the party in Ted’s car, a car that would eventually overturn on the Dike Bridge and sink into the water. Ted escaped the car, Mary Jo did not.
He would then swim to shore, walk back to the cottage and ask Joe and Paul to drive him back to the scene, informing them both of what happened. Rather than report the incident, Ted instead made his way back to the mainland, slept the rest of the night in his hotel, and reported the crash the following morning, minutes after the police had already arrived on scene and retrieved Mary Jo’s body from the car. Throughout the rest of the week, Ted and a team of experts, working fortuitously with the fact that most Americans’ eyes were on the Apollo 18 moon landings occurring at the same time, attempted to put a lid on the damage caused to Ted’s potential career by the situation and they largely succeeded. Despite being officially charged with manslaughter, which he pleaded guilty to and was given a suspended two-month sentence for, and ultimately not running for the office of President in the ’72 and ’76 elections like he was being groomed for, he was overwhelmingly forgiven by the residents of Massachusetts, not only declining to resign in his televised apology but continuing to serve as Senator for the remainder of his life, ending (at time of writing) as the fourth longest-serving (consecutive) Senator in US history.
Now that I have told you all of this, effectively condensing an entire Wikipedia article down into two paragraphs, there is no reason for you to watch The Senator, John Curran’s dramatisation of the events of that fateful-except-not-really week. The Senator, formerly known as Chappaquiddick in the US (a generic name change that baffles me just as much as it did the last time it happened to a middling US biopic featuring Kate Mara), is not a bad watch, far from it. For one, there are a number of decent-but-not-outstanding performances, mostly from the supporting cast – Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan, playing Joe and Paul, give exactly the understated turn that primarily-comedic actors looking to demonstrate their Serious Chops always give, whilst Kate Mara tries her best to bring something (anything) to the thankless role of Mary Jo.
Curran’s direction is alright, stately for the vast majority of the time but eventually twisting into something a bit slyer once the screenplay wakes up and provides a stretch of substance. Once the action shifts to the Kennedy compound and a crack team of experts forcibly assembled by Ted’s authoritarian father Joseph (Bruce Dern, playing the stroke-addled patriarch like a G.I. Joe villain), proceedings take on something akin to an Armando Iannucci-type political farce. A brain trust of ruthless political operators, including Robert McNamara (a show-stealing Clancy Brown) and Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols), trying to wrangle some control over a narrative whose control is seemingly forever out-of-grasp due to the man at its centre being a goddamn idiot. Contradicting stories, logic holes, a dumbass desperately trying to prove he’s really a political genius and screwing up because his stubborn pride insists on wearing a neck brace he clearly does not need to a public funeral in the hopes of it garnering some sympathy despite literally everybody telling him how awful of an idea it is.
But aside from this stretch just making me want to put on The Death of Stalin again – I said Iannucci-type, not Iannucci-quality – what this brief flirtation with something genuinely interesting and somewhat compelling does is expose the gaping hole at the film’s centre: Ted Kennedy. Part of the problem is in the performance of Jason Clarke as the titular Senator. Now and then, he puts together some decent sequences, displaying a sufficient level of petulance and impotency during the prior-mentioned stretch where Ted is reduced to being a particularly inept pawn everyone has to clean up after. But not only does Clarke lack any charisma whatsoever despite playing a friggin’ Kennedy, something I kept hoping would reveal itself to be a plot-point befitting Ted’s nature as the runt of the litter but alas, I never got the impression that there was anything going on underneath the surface of Ted. The various aspects of Clarke’s performance that we bear witness to over the course of the film don’t congeal into a cohesive whole which leaves Ted feeling unconvincing – one minute he’s a smug snake trying to salvage his career, the next he’s guilt-wracked and repentant, the next he’s an actual child wrestling with his brother over a tie.
In fairness to Clarke, though, he is working from a screenplay, by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, that has little to no read or bead on any of its cast of characters, let alone the subject of what’s supposed to be a character piece. Of course, part of that is simply unavoidable, since Chappaquiddick is a mess of conflicting evidence and testimonies and those vital details about what happened in the car are just unknowable for everybody except Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne. But the screenplay’s inability or refusal to delve into Ted Kennedy as a person hobbles Clarke’s performance, cripples the film’s ability to say much of anything, and leaves it all feeling extremely surface-level and uninspired. That’s all before I bring up some extremely clunky writing, where characters state others’ names and job titles in full regularly in the opening third and there is indeed a scene where Ted lays down on the bridge at night and emotionlessly intones “what have I done,” and one-dimensional characters. If the film can’t figure out how to make its protagonist a three-dimensional person, the closest it gets being a cursory glance in the direction of “Daddy Issues,” then you’d better believe that it couldn’t care about Mary Jo in the slightest, who solely exists for the required fridging with no trace of personality otherwise.
The Senator clearly wants to save face through an attempt at timeliness, as its closing archival footage and title cards show a general public that takes Ted’s apology for committing actual manslaughter primarily at face value, many even espousing a willingness to vote for his (non-existent) presidential run. Demonstrating just how easily we are willing to forgive White men who have transgressed, no matter how badly, so long as they look sincere enough on the tellybox when they say sorry and have a surname with cache. But this is 2018, a time where an admitted and unrepentant sexual predator sits in the White House, with an inner circle similarly stacked to the rafters with unapologetic criminals and screw-ups, and where an actual alleged paedophile can almost win a Senate position, so, if anything, The Senator looks quaint in its damning assertion that we’ll forgive White men for anything if they appear contrite enough.
Even then, there’s just no fire or passion to make these final scenes sing like they’re, presumably, supposed to. The Senator is all lifeless, by-the-numbers, just-the-facts dryness. The few times it stumbles into a scene with wit or a deeper message or some additional point feeling more like glitches in the system than an intended feature. It’s not bad, maybe worth a viewing when it jumps to Netflix and you can’t be bothered to pick something on your watchlist, just really dull and nothing you couldn’t instead gain from reading a Wiki summary on the actual event.
The Senator is available to buy Digitally today (13 August), and on DVD from 20 August. Check out the trailer below: