The story of Senator Ted Kennedy’s fateful late-night outing on Chappaquiddick Island – resulting in the death of 28-year old campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne on the 18th July, 1969 - has long been the subject of endless speculation and theories. In THE SENATOR, those very events are engagingly re-enacted but ultimately offer as much or as little solution as to what really happened as did numerous attempts before.

Jason Clarke takes on the complex part of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, even bearing a striking physical resemblance, and his Senator is not only a man driven by political ambition but tormented by a difficult relationship with his father Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. (Bruce Dern portraying him as a bitter, broken and wheelchair-bound stroke victim) as well as an overall troubled family history.
The film begins with Ted Kennedy in the interview chair answering questions about constantly being in the shadow of his late, assassinated brothers. After the interview he calls his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) to book hotel rooms on Martha’s Vineyard for the so-called ‘Boiler Room Girls’ – a team of young female staff who worked for Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. One of the girls is Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). Later that day Ted Kennedy travels to nearby Chappaquiddick Island where he meets with his cousin Joe and also with Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), the US-Attorney for Massachusetts. That evening, after having lost a sailing race, Kennedy and his friends join the Boiler Room Girls and others in a rented beach house for a party filled with music, dance and countless bottles of booze. Late at night, and for reasons unclear (or kept secret) Kennedy and Mary Jo leave the party in a car usually driven by Kennedy’s chauffeur but on this occasion, Kennedy is behind the wheel (after the accident, contradictory statements say that Mary Jo wanted to return to the mainland and Kennedy simply offered her a lift, something at odds with the fact that she didn’t take her bag etc with her).

During the drive they encounter a police officer in his car who spots their car standing but they drive off upon his intention to ask them whether all is ok. Minutes later, the car plunges off Dike Bridge (a one-lane bridge) and into the tide-swept Poucha Pond. For reasons only known to Kennedy (and which he took with him to his grave when he passed away in 2009) it is here that fiction and history begin to blend: while Kennedy managed to get out of the car he did not manage to free Mary Jo despite several attempts (according to his own account). Citing shock and exhaustion, Kennedy failed to raise the alarm despite the (apparent) urge from Gargan and Markham to do so. Instead, Kennedy spends the night in his hotel room on the mainland. The next day, the overturned car is discovered by a man and his son who happen to pass by and raise the alarm. Police chief Arena (John Fiore) and his rescue team not only retrieve the car wreck but the body of Mary Jo and learn from the registration number that the car belongs to Senator Kennedy. The discovery spreads the news double-quick and both Gargan and Markham now realize that Kennedy did not raise the alarm after the incident. Once again they try to persuade him that he must turn himself in and finally Kennedy obliges, giving a statement and thus hoping to get away with negligence caused by shock rather then manslaughter caused by dangerous driving. When Kennedy returns to his family compound in Massachusetts, however, his father is furious with him and accuses him of having disgraced the family name thanks to his cowardly actions. Furthermore, his father has arranged for a ‘damage control team’ led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) who try everything to portray Kennedy as a sympathetic and trustworthy character fit to become the next president while all efforts are made to delay the legal hearing until after the current news dominated by Neil Armstrong’s landing on the Moon. Even a quick transfer of Mary Jo’s corpse to her birthplace in Pennsylvania is arranged by Kennedy, leading to one of his many blunders as getting the paperwork sorted takes time, not to mention the autopsy. Ah, the autopsy! Apparently (there are so many ‘apparently’ in this entire saga) her cause of death was drowning – a proper autopsy was never authorized though years later never-ending speculations and forensic expertise concluded that Mary Jo died in fact not from drowning but from suffocating in the car after oxygen in an air bubble had run out. Had Ted Kennedy raised the alarm straight away Mary Jo would most likely had survived as apparently (yep, apparently yet again!) she would still have been alive for another two to three hours after the car plunged into the pond.

The remaining plot of the film concerns itself with Kennedy’s attempts to clear his name from possible manslaughter, citing his apparent state of shock and exhaustion as the main reason as to why he didn’t raise the alarm straight away. Still, several of his statements don’t gel as is made apparent in the film: how come Kennedy managed to get out of the sinking car but Mary Jo did not? According to his own words, Kennedy tried in vain to break doors and windscreen to free her but the heavy tide made it impossible. How then did he manage? Another theory is that Kennedy wasn’t in the car anymore at the time it plunged over the bridge. As a married man in the public eye he had a certain reputation to keep his image clean and after the policeman spotted him with a young blonde in his car late at night he may well have left beforehand with Mary Jo driving on by herself. Neither Kennedy nor Mary Jo knew the area well and obviously the car headed into the wrong direction. During the hearing Kennedy also claimed he had suffered a mild concussion during the accident which would account for his irrational behaviour and his doctor prescribed him sedatives. Obviously he didn’t do his research as the prosecution quickly established that no doctor would describe sedatives to someone who suffers a concussion. Another dodgy point is that Kennedy wore a neck brace at Mary Jo’s funeral – turning to TV-crews and journalists after the ceremony. Once again, a quick-witted doctor argued that someone wearing a neck brace (with an actual injury that is!) would not be able to turn his neck so easily!

Contradiction after contradiction – there really is more to the story than the media and the public were allowed to find out. Fact is that despite the Quappaquiddick incident Ted Kennedy managed to remain in the US Senate until his death in 2009. At the same time the incident culminated in a major national scandal (publicized worldwide) and influenced Ted Kennedy’s decision NOT to campaign for President in 1972 and 76.

This engaging film is not a political thriller in a traditional sense, much more it concerns itself with the aftermath of the Quappaquiddick incident and the reaction of those linked to the Kennedy circle, including Mary Jo’s parents.