The Senator Review
The Kennedy's have cast their long shadow over American history. John F. Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States; he took it to the moon, nearly ended the world over a Bay of Pigs and was assassinated in the back of a car, probably by a secret agent with poor gun safety training. Robert F Kennedy was the Attorney General and a Senator before he was similarly assassinated at his victory in South Dakota and California to be the Democratic presidential candidate. But did you know that there is a younger Kennedy? Well, there are a total of nine Kennedy siblings, five of which are daughters who also had significant political careers in their own right. The youngest of all nine of them, however, is Edward Moore Kennedy, the man who was the fourth longest continuously serving senator in US history and the second most senior member of the Senate. But like all youngest children, he is desperate to escape the shadows of his older siblings.
It is nice then that Ted Kennedy gets his film. However, it is a film that explores the moment that nearly sunk his entire career and could have landed him in jail. In 1969 after a party on Chappaquiddick Island off the coast of New Jersey, Ted Kennedy drove drunk off a small bridge with a passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kopechne was a campaign secretary for Robert Kennedy. Kennedy managed to escape but left the scene for ten hours before contacting the authorities, by which time Kopechne was already dead. However, Kennedy tried to control the story before reporting it to no avail. This is the story of Chappaquiddick (with an alternative title here in the UK, The Senator).
The story of The Senator is a farce; it is something that could have either been written by Armando Iannucci if he was feeling particularly dark or by the Coens if they were feeling unusually cheerful. Everything that Edward has does has made his situation even worse, and everything conspires against him, and his strategists plan to save his political career. Whether it is historically accurate is ambiguous, but it would have made a great political satire like The Death of Stalin or The Thick of It. You get a peek at what the film could have been during the funeral section, where Teddy Kennedy tries to evoke sympathy by wearing a neck brace. There are clueless civil servants, pushy PR people and out of touch arrogant politicians trying to find the best way to come out of an unintentional manslaughter charge.
The performances power The Senator. Jason Clarke takes up the lead role as Ted Kennedy, and when he is given something to hold onto he delivers as a constant screw-up coasting on the Kennedy name, incompetent and insecure in his position. This is especially true of the aforementioned funeral section when Ted Kennedy is at his most idiotic. Backing him up are the likes of Clancy Brown in a small role as Robert McNamara, the Mr Fix-it of the Democratic Party. We also have Bruce Dern handing in a stellar performance as the crippled Joseph P Kennedy Sr (Ted's Father), as well as Ed Helms, who provides the soul and audience perspective on the incident even though he isn't even the main character.
However, The Senator does not capitalise on things that would elevate it above the standard worthy political film. There are moments when you can feel higher ups reigning the tone in, keeping the filmmakers from making something more biting. Instead, it is introspective, exploring Ted and making him more sympathetic as a man in the shadow of his brothers and father. Instead of doing more excellent character work on Ted, Jason Clarke feels stuck between guilt and gormlessness; The Senator is littered with shots of Ted looking off into the distance. It seems almost like Ed Helm’s character, cousin to the Kennedy's Joe Gargan, was supposed to be the focus of the film as he is the one who points out that the family is trying to exploit the death of a person for political gain. Either that or the original plan was to lean into the political satire.
The film was released around the same time as Jackie, the stylish Jackie Kennedy biopic. That film had an unusual story structure, a great look and a captivating central performance from Natalie Portman. As such, The Senator, despite being well constructed and shot, has nothing that stands out and thus fades from memory. Lost amongst the other "interesting" political stories in American history, as a more stylish and pointed film cuts through to what it means and what it is trying to do.
The Senator starts slowly, and it does not build momentum. The film feels lost and confused, not able to fulfil its full potential as if it is being held back by higher-ups fearful of the political consequences. You catch glimpses of what could have been, and while it might not be accurate or appropriate, it could have spoken to some deep-seated issues in power systems. As it is The Senator is fine, but when it has so much competition fine cannot cut it and instead of being elected it lets its mistakes drag it down, like Ted Kennedy himself.