Politics and scandal go hand in hand. Most men (or occasionally women,) in power hide secrets, regrets, or past mistakes from voters and the public. This has gone on for decades – centuries even – as those “in charge” rally for a better image and confidence from the people, they’ll bend over backwards to cover up lies and, in some extreme cases, accidents and even death.
The Senator, otherwise known as Chappaquiddick, revolves around Teddy Kennedy’s own horrific mistake. The film looks at Kennedy’s aim for Presidency whilst also helming the Moon Landing of 1969. At a party, Teddy takes out Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign specialist, for a drive as the pair have become close. Whilst driving back to the house, Ted accidentally drives the car off a bridge, causing it to sink in the river and Mary Jo to horrifically drown. Realising he’ll be culpable, Teddy doesn’t report the accident right away and soon enters a media struggle to exonerate himself from responsibility.
Jason Clarke is terrific. He is absolutely absorbing as Teddy, a character who is desperate for attention following in the shadows of his two late brothers John and Robert (both assassinated before the incident.) Teddy is an impertinent and unsympathetic character who’s focus is finding his identity, earning his father’s approval, and also finding his feet after the accident. It’s hard to root for Teddy but Clarke fleshes him out in an absolutely brilliant way. You pity and feel for him as much as you despise and mock him. It’s a wonderfully astute performance that showcases Clarke’s talent.
I was worried that the film would over look Mary Jo’s tragic death far too much – pushing to look in-depth at Teddy’s mentality and reasoning. Whilst there is little on the woman herself and a rather small role for the vastly underrated Kate Mara, The Senator does look at Mary Jo and the accident’s impact.
John Curran’s film leans into the stupidity and selfishness of men. As the film progresses, your sympathy for Teddy is lost as his need to appease his father and keep his public image golden becomes overwhelmingly trite. He’s bumbling and foolish whilst also emotional and lost. It is less about trying to save him, but trying to understand him and the aftermath of the accident. As the legal team scramble to get ahead of the media (“the Bay of Pigs was a smoother operation,”) the drama unwinds into horror. Horror that many lose sight of the loss of a bright life in favour of politics and publicity.
It’s not just that people around him believed his story either. Teddy is openly mocked and ridiculed by the public, press, and those closest to him. This is best shown in Ed Helms’ Joe Gargan. A previous family friend, somewhat adopted into the Kennedy fold, Gargan loses faith in the Kennedy’s as they publically spin lies and ignore the true tragedy – the death of Mary Jo. Helms, moving into a serious role, is the voice of reason and angered as the whole incident spirals into a circus, parading Teddy around as the true victim. Helms is a brilliant counterpoint to Clarke’s Teddy as the latter bounces around guilt and showmanship and it’s easy to see why Gargan began to distance himself from the family.
It’s a shame that The Senator didn’t receive a bigger release internationally, it’s an exceptionally tuned drama and surprisingly layered. Garth Stevenson’s score is haunting, unravelling soft tones around the story in a fantastically engaging soundtrack.
The Senator has now become a hidden gem; a must-see look at how an incident is spun in favour of those in power, centred in an engaged performance by Jason Clarke.
The Senator is out on DVD and Digital Download now!