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aka The Senator

D: John Curran / 107m

Cast: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols, Bruce Dern, Olivia Thirlby, Lexie Roth, John Fiore

It’s July 18 1969, and while Apollo 11 speeds its way to the Moon, Massachusetts’ senator Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy (Clarke) has travelled to Chappaquiddick Island to take part in a sail race with his cousin, Joe Gargan (Helms), and US Attorney for Massachusetts, Paul Markham (Gaffigan). That evening, Kennedy, Gargan, and Markham attend a party at a beach house for the Boiler Room Girls, women who were campaign workers for his brother Robert. One of them is Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara). Late on, she and Kennedy go for a drive. Kennedy loses control of the car, and it crashes off a bridge and into a pond. With the car upside down in the water, Kennedy manages to get clear but Mary Jo isn’t so lucky; she drowns. Kennedy returns to the beach house where he tells Joe and Paul what’s happened, but even though they return to the pond, they’re unable to do anything. One thing that both Joe and Paul are certain of is that Kennedy should report the accident as soon as possible. He agrees with them, but his subsequent actions show that doing the right thing is at odds with political expediency…

If you take anything away from Chappaquiddick, it’s that Ted Kennedy was very much in thrall to his family’s political ambitions, and this caused him to behave very erratically in the days following the accident that derailed his chances of ever becoming president. Somewhere behind the experienced political manipulator was a man with a conscience who knew what he had to do – the right thing – but who also didn’t want his political life to be ruined in the process. The tug-of-war between these two ideas is the focus of a movie that tries to be fair to Kennedy and the situation he found himself in, but when you have a character (from real life or not) who tries to manipulate the details of someone’s death for their own personal advantage, and who does so almost as soon as possible, then it’s hard to look at them so objectively. Two moments stand out: Kennedy deciding to say Mary Jo was driving, and later, at her funeral, deciding to wear a neck brace to back up the fabrication that he was suffering from concussion. The movie tries, but it’s hard to sympathise with someone who defaults to manipulation so easily.

As Kennedy, Clarke gives a terrific performance, presenting Kennedy as a weak man clutching at any and all options to keep his political career alive, but with little understanding of how this makes him seem, both to his advisors and the public – and ultimately, without the necessary self-respect that would allow him to see the difference. Mara has what amounts to a supporting role as Mary Jo, while Helms has a rare dramatic role as the increasingly disillusioned Gargan, a man adopted into the Kennedy family but having to come to terms with the fact that Ted isn’t in the same league as his older brothers. The movie keeps an even, methodical pace, but given the subject matter, lacks the energy and passion needed to reinforce just how much of an impact these events had on Kennedy and his future career. Curran directs with a firm eye on the performances, while visually the movie has a dour, melancholy feel to it that matches the subject matter. As an exercise in shining a light on a story that hasn’t been dramatised before, it’s a welcome look at a turbulent moment in late Sixties US history, and as a cautionary tale it’s more than effective.

Rating: 7/10 – with a potent central performance from Clarke, Chappaquiddick is a tale of political hubris that doesn’t pull its punches when exposing just how far someone will go to protect their public position; with a matter-of-fact approach to the material, and a straightforward narrative, it’s certainly a no frills movie, but in many ways it’s all the better for being so.