DVD Review – The Senator

The Senator (Chappaquiddick) is a very good film but died in the US. It’s about a tragic incident in Chappaquiddick involving Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy, and the cover-up that followed, which ruined his chance to be President and resulted in a woman’s death.  He did try to run later on, but unfortunately the result was a win by Ronald Reagan.

Someone like Oliver Stone would have made it more explicit that Kennedy was guilty, which would have been fine, but the way director John Curran handled it was to just show what’s known about what happened. The film condemns Kennedy without being shouty about it the way Stone would have been.

It’s helped enormously by a very nuanced performance by Jason Clarke. Clarke has been around for awhile, and has more than a passing resemblance to Kennedy as well as having the Boston upper-class Irish accent down despite being Australian. Joe Kennedy appears as well, and the portrayal by Bruce Dern makes it clear that even though the patriarch had had a stroke by this point, his sons obeyed him unquestionably. Dern’s nearly wordless performance is very powerful and somewhat terrifying.

But for whatever reason, the only people who gave the film any coverage worked in the right-wing press—which only latched on it because it was critical of a famous Democrat. It’s probably hard for people in Hollywood to be critical of the Kennedys, as Stone learned when he made JFK. However, it’s a smart political thriller that examines the dilemmas Ted Kennedy faced, having screwed up so royally, in trying to salvage his career in some form. Of course, he was eventually one of the longest-serving US senators, but he could well have gone to prison instead.

It’s very well made but seems to have fallen to the fate of other political biopics recently like Rob Reiner’s LBJ. There may have also been a feeling in the industry that with Trump in the White House, a film that shows a Democrat’s flaws was not one they wanted to promote.  There have been allegations from some involved in the production that long-term Kennedy aides and allies tried to suppress the film, although obviously if so they were not successful.

The film implies the various theories without being too explicit, since no one knows exactly. It’s become fairly clear over the years that Kennedy was likely having an affair with the victim, Mary Jo Kopechne (played here by Kate Mara) and had probably been drinking before getting into a car with her. Kennedy comes off as a flawed person, but not despicable. What made the incident so damning is that there might have been a possibility of saving Kopechne, although no one will ever know. The film begins with the fatal late-night accident, which Kennedy didn’t report it for almost 12 hours. The last 30 minutes consists of the family and their advisors trying (and failing) to spin it.

Clancy Brown also appears as Robert MacNamara—you always know that when Brown has a role it’s likely to be at least decent, he is one of Hollywood’s secret weapons. Quite a few of the cast members are better known for their work in comedies, such as Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan.

The UK disc doesn’t include any extras, although the US Blu-Ray does have a pair of making-of featurettes. The film was released in the US as Chappaquiddick, but the distributors apparently assumed that no one outside of the US would recognise the name, and gave it a more generic name, The Senator,  that sounds like a direct-to-video thriller (the French title is The Secret of Kennedy, and in Holland and Belgium it’s called The Last Son). It didn’t get a theatrical release in the UK, which is unfortunate because it might have done well with a limited run, which it had in mainland Europe.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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