The Senator


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Senator
"Undeniably, powerfully, tragic, a tale of ambition, bad decisions, cover-ups if not conspiracy - actual smoke-filled back rooms and dirt-road meetings notwithstanding - it is sympathetic to its protagonist but only so far."

The Senator is Ted Kennedy, youngest of the four Kennedy sons, the sole survivor. Survivor being a difficult word, as in 1969, on the island Chappaquiddick off Martha's Vineyard whose name is an alternate title for this film, there was an incident. It would be negligent to suggest that it was only an accident. Chappaquiddick means 'separated island', and it is - a world apart, not just geographically, but socially, politically, a playground for the East Coast Elite. At that remove from the ordinary, a car crash claimed the life of Mary Jo Kopechne.

Ted's elder brothers met violent ends. The various tragedies of his sisters are elided here, but are no less startling. Ted, elected to the Senate seat his brother held when he was elected President, came from a line of great men, with great ambition, and great influence, and great appetites, and great expectations. A family with a strong nautical, naval, tradition, they left various forms of chaos in their wake - not for nothing are the sea-facing balconies of that part of the world known as widows-walks.

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Jason Clarke bears a striking physical resemblance to Ted, one of a cast whose approximations of those portrayed ground the film in a particular realism - a bleached, Life magazine aesthetic, a palette of Sixties optimism, kodachrome space age mellow. Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler) provides cinematography that keeps Ted ever within or in the edge of being overshadowed - even on the white sands of Chappaquiddick, unbraced, he is the Senator, third of the family to bear that title. It's a feature d├ębut for writers Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen. The paucity of writing credits on their CVs hides a variety of behind the scenes and production credits. Director John Curran has only a few features to his name, but has worked with a number of names you'd recognise - so too here. Jason Clarke is building a pretty credible career as a 'That Guy' - he's one of seven actors (so far) to have played John Connor, and as the titular Senator he's given the chance to show both range and depth.

The cast are striking - Clancy Brown appears as Robert Macnamara, channelling a later Secretary of Defense in a speech that mentions known knowns and unknown unknowns. It's beautifully constructed, composed, but even as it depicts the moon landing (Jack's great legacy as observed) its competing with First Man, due later this year. Jason Clarke will appear as Apollo astronaut Ed White in that film, another, differently tragic role.

Ed Helms plays Joseph Gargan, a Kennedy cousin and, well, aide-de-camp doesn't quite cover it - "Joey'll fix it" and he does, when he can. Mary Jo (Kate Mara) is one of brother Bobby's campaign secretaries, still fresh from the grief of RFK's assassination. As the family patriarch, Bruce Dern's Joseph P Kennedy Sr is striking, his authority almost entirely conveyed by others' reaction to him. In a performance sufficiently minimal that it features perhaps ten words, two or three gestures, there's still a sense of the authority and will that had a poacher turned gamekeeper (not by accident was he made a chairman of the SEC) manage to put two of his sons in reach of the White House, and, until the events depicted, nearly a third.

With a multi-instrumental score by Garth Stevenson (who worked with Curran on another film based on a true story, 2013's Tracks), and a number of quality late Sixties obscurities (After All's And I Will Follow and the Paragons' Kneel And Pray carrying particular resonances), sound is one of the key features of the film. There are moments of archive audio, single words over crackling telephone lines as stark as the daily intertitles, all indicative of effort and poise. Though those depicted are often making decisions based on limited information and without thought, that would not seem to be the case for those behind the scenes.

It could do more to give context. The use of what one assumes are drones for overhead shots, sequences of sailing all do a lot to convey the various isolations of the islands. It sometimes feels a little on the nose, it does perhaps labour the point to have a particular speech placed on the right side. Ted may have been 'the Lion of the Senate', but there are assumptions made about what audiences will know about the era, the family, and so forth. There's a later moment that I was only able to place because of a date in hair and makeup credits, but it might help you to know that it's Kennedy's speech after Obama's nomination as Democratic candidate for President where he used lines from his 1980 concession speech as a Presidential nominee. It's a moment that only becomes as powerful in retrospect, with information external to the film, and perhaps that is ultimately The Senator's downfall.

It's got some haunting moments: lights under the water, some artfully observed details - a wall with a sign forbidding advertising is covered in thumb-tacked notices, as concrete an example of how rules don't necessarily apply as any segregation of waste or borrowed row-boat. It flashes back and back through tellings and re-tellings, as versions of the truth are sculpted. Lines are drawn, carefully, between evasion and elision, invention and editing. A difficult element for anything based on a true story, it's impossible to determine that which is real and that which is created. It is certain that there are tragedies here - and the film is careful not to lose sight that Mary Jo's death is not to be lost among them.

Undeniably, powerfully, tragic, a tale of ambition, bad decisions, cover-ups if not conspiracy - actual smoke-filled back rooms and dirt-road meetings notwithstanding - it is sympathetic to its protagonist but only so far. It walks a difficult line around a topic that is still controversial, and does so in a way that reflects all manner of small moments of grief, of grieving, of grievance.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of The Senator is one of distribution - UK audiences will have options to stream it before DVD release, but its sound and striking visuals deserve perhaps a canvas larger than even the most well appointed home can afford. In a film where there is plenty of watching - televisions depicting the landing of Apollo 11, coverage of the incident itself, a brief moment between then and now - a film of quality based upon an incident that for many defined a man defined himself by tragedies will perhaps itself go unseen, unknown, constrained by circumstance to a smaller stage than it might otherwise deserve.

Reviewed on: 08 Aug 2018
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The Senator packshot
A dramatisation of events around Ted Kennedy's involvement in the fatal 1969 car accident that claimed the life of a young campaign strategist, Mary Jo Kopechne.

Director: John Curran

Writer: Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan

Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, Olivia Thirlby, Clancy Brown

Year: 2017

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Sweden, US


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