The Senator: Chilling exploration of Chappaquiddick cover-up

Film review: Five decades on, a scandal involving Ted Kennedy poses many questions

Jason Clarke and Kate Mara

Film Title: The Senator

Director: John Curran

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

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 101 min

Fri, Mar 19, 2021, 05:00


Had this fascinating, supple drama retained its US title then, despite what its current distributors apparently think, little explanation of its plot would be required. The word Chappaquiddick (for so the film was named when it premiered at Toronto way back in 2017) now means only one thing to anyone from outside Martha’s Vineyard.

It was off that island, in 1969, that senator Edward Kennedy swam away from the submerged car in which young Mary Jo Kopechne was drowning. The incident may have ultimately cost the youngest Kennedy brother the presidency, but, watching the attempted cover-up play out in The Senator, contemporary viewers may find themselves puzzled that he was left with any sort of career. Then again, who knows what really went on?

Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy
Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy

Jason Clarke, often blank, frequently evasive, does not turn Ted into a monster. The casualness with which this version allows the political machine to take over is, nonetheless, chilling. Since the US release of Chappaquiddick, the writers of the television series Succession have worked an eerily similar incident into their saga about a sinister dynasty and its demonic patriarch. Make of that what you will.

Likeliest explanation

Using Occam’s razor to slice away much speculative gibberish, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s screenplay gives us the sparest interpretation of the incident itself. Kopechne, who had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign, is played with discipline and dignity by Kate Mara. She accepts a lift from Kennedy after a party.

The film depicts the drive off the bridge as an everyday accident. Kennedy emerges from the water, calls out to Kopechne and, receiving no reply, makes his way back to the house. Virtually the first thing he says to his posse is: “I am not going to be president.” What follows is more baffling still. He suggests that the divided Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), cousin and fixer-in-chief, help him manage the situation and then fails to report the incident until the following morning.

What was going on in Kennedy’s mind? The most generous of viewers will make noises about PTSD (and maybe suggest the film seasons the truth with speculation), but the circling minders are here at least as culpable as Clarke’s take on Kennedy. At first, a plan is hatched. “I am going to say I wasn’t the driver,” Kennedy says. Eventually, they decide to go before the public and spill the beans. But even then, there are qualifications. “We tell the truth,” Kennedy says, before adding “or our version of it”. What does that mean?

Properly chilling

Every now and then we cut back to properly chilling footage of Kopechne – about whom no film will be made – fighting for air as the water rises in the sunken vehicle. But the apparatchiks are too busy salvaging a career to allow conscience to bite. No exchange is more chilling than Kennedy’s call to his father (a wracked, furious Bruce Dern) after the drowning. There is a long, wheezy pause as Joe, who had a stroke eight years earlier, drags out one essential word: “Alibi!”

The Senator is not exactly forgiving of its subject, but it is prepared to offer some gentle mitigation. He had lost three brothers. His father had placed all hopes upon him. It is impossible to avoid thoughts of Fredo in The Godfather as Ted pleads with his unreasonable dad. “Jack was the charming one. Bobby was the brilliant one. And what did that leave for me, Dad? The fat one? The stupid one? I’ll tell you what: the one who got in the most trouble.”

It is for historians to debate what actually went on in the aftermath of the Chappaquiddick incident. But whatever its relationship to the truth – writer Neal Gabler has accused the film-makers of “conjecture and outright fabrication” – the movie offers a convincing demonstration of how political mechanisms conspire to protect the powerful from their own mistakes.

The Senator, finally arriving here via Amazon Prime, premiered just weeks before the Weinstein revelations hit. Sadly, it remains timely.

Streaming on Amazon Prime from March 19th