Film - The Senator

Steve Taylor-Bryant watched The Senator, out on Amazon Prime this week...

The scandal and mysterious events surrounding the tragic drowning of a young woman, as Ted Kennedy drove his car off the infamous bridge, are revealed in the new movie starring Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne. Not only did this event take the life of an aspiring political strategist and Kennedy insider, but it ultimately changed the course of presidential history forever. Through true accounts, documented in the inquest from the investigation in 1969, director John Curran and writers Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen, intimately expose the broad reach of political power, the influence of America's most celebrated family; and the vulnerability of Ted Kennedy, the youngest son, in the shadow of his family legacy.

Firstly, my thanks to all involved for changing the title to something I can spell from Chappaquiddick which would have involved lots of swearing on my part during the writing of this review. Secondly, my thanks to all involved for possibly one of the best political films I have seen in many years.

When it comes to making films about America’s most famous political behemoth of a family it is nearly always John or Robert lives that are portrayed, the assassinations that really did change the face of not just America’s political landscape, but the world's. The shadow of the Kennedy brothers lives long over Washington and, as this film explains well, lives longest over Edward Moore ‘Ted’ Kennedy, the youngest of the brothers and the one seen by the world's press for a long time as the hapless brother. I knew a little of the Chappaquiddick incident through my own personal studies of American political history and, whilst the events of Friday, July 18, 1969 may not be as big and as glamorous as an assassination, there are still many conspiracy theories about the actual events of that fateful night, with most of them stemming from Senator Kennedy’s own actions and words in the aftermath. 

Does The Senator clarify anything and give you a clear indication of really happened that night, the car accident that led to the death of Kennedy staffer and political campaigner Mary Jo Kopechne? No, of course it doesn’t, and we will never know the true events, but what the film does very cleverly is give you one tale as the events unfold on screen, but then changes its own narrative as Ted Kennedy’s changes over the next week or so. I don’t know the writers of The Senator, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, from anything they may have done before, but I do know is that they delivered a screenplay that was a mixture of taut thriller and fantastic bio-pic in a real and gripping way. This is the highest of compliments for the writing team because, don’t get me wrong, the events of Chappaquiddick, and any part of Ted Kennedy’s life for that matter, could become a train wreck quite easily. Kennedy’s personality, his twists and turns in his recollections, his ease at being dominated by men more powerful than him, makes him a character that could quite easily have been written as the joke that many of the world view Ted Kennedy as being. The script for The Senator offers all the insights I mention but ties them together in a very classy and professional way that leave the viewer reflecting, as the end footage leaves the people of Massachusetts reflecting, on what they personally feel about Ted Kennedy the man. I for one found a sense of sorrow as I saw how easily he was manipulated by anyone in authority, and a sadness for a man that seemed almost reluctant to be in the public eye and who was just fighting for his father’s approval and love.

Jason Clarke, an Australian actor known more films involving action, is not a name I would have thought of regarding Ted Kennedy casting choices but his demeanour, his look, and his ability to absolutely nail the Boston tinged accent left me feeling like I was watching a documentary at points. Clarke has never been better in any role than this one, he managed to portray not only the Kennedy power but Ted’s own need to please with utter class and it's his powerhouse performance that stops the wonderful Bruce Dern as Joseph Kennedy, the political might of the Kennedy boys, from stealing the show. I was left craving a film about Joseph and his iron grip on American politics through his sons, starring Dern, and if the crew of The Senator have nothing better to do they jump on that and please me even more than they have in this film. Dern and Clarke aside most of the casting choices were also brilliant. Clancy Brown as Robert McNamara, Kate Mara as Mary Jo, and Jim Gaffigan as Paul Markham were all perfect in their respective roles, and I was mightily impressed by Ed Helms, an actor I know only from comedy, as Joseph Gargan, a role that really is the glue that holds the film together and I’ll admit I didn’t see the star of The Hangover as someone who could do that. I am very pleased to be wrong.

Casting was key to getting such an incredibly well written screenplay to grip the viewers emotions in the way it did but the pacing of the film, particularly in the days immediately after the accident, was going to be a tough ask. Getting all the information that is known, then telling the twisty story from the page, whilst holding the attention of an audience more familiar with John and Robert than Teddy takes some deft film-making skills and director John Curran accomplished the near impossible. The film runs at exactly the pace required for tension to build but also allows thoughts to be reflected on to stay predominant and along with cinematographer Maryse Alberti they have packaged something wonderful into something spectacular to look at.

I cannot find fault with The Senator. It gave me everything I want from a true life political film. It had great storytelling, compelling performances, a fantastic soundtrack that was evocative and moody one minute and light and almost not there the next. It had a glorious look and colour to it, I could go on and on, but I have stop somewhere. If you have even a passing interest in Kennedy lore or U.S politics, or you just want to see a cast knock it out of the park then you must give The Senator a go. Compelling, beautiful, emotional writing performed by stars that will never be better. My film of the year so far.

Follow Steve on Twitter @STBwrites

Signature Entertainment presents The Senator on Amazon Prime Video 19th March

Image - Signature Entertainment

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