Documentarian Rory Kennedy is the youngest of Senator Robert Kennedy and Ethel Skakel Kennedy’s 11 children, born seven months after her father’s assassination in 1968. Never having known her father, except via the scratchy footage of history, home movies and stories from family members, yet also inevitably identified as a “daughter of Robert Kennedy,” she set out to make a film about the unsung leading influence in her life — her mother. To do this, she interviewed Ethel, now a twinkly-eyed elderly woman with a short-spoken, cards-on-the-table demeanor. She also interviewed the eight surviving brothers and sisters of her 11-sibling clan.
Rory Kennedy is neither a gifted narrator nor interviewer. Her narration, which spans her parents’ upbringings, relationship, simultaneous ascension into the political realm and public eye, her father’s death and beyond, has the congested drone of a middle-schooler delivering a history paper. Her questions, particularly to her mother, are a bit long-winded and the sort that back the interviewee into a “yes” or “no” corner. Also, she and her eight siblings insist on referring to their parents as “mummy” and “daddy,” which grates painfully and, en masse, has the accidentally humorous feel of a strange, infantilized cult caught on film.
Yet somehow “Ethel,” both the documentary and its increasingly interesting namesake, wins out in the end. Rory was smart to use, and lucky to possess, mounds of archival footage of her fabled family, which proves fascinating on both an historical and personal level. Home movies showing the skiing trip where Ethel and Robert were first introduced (and where Robert would become inconveniently smitten with Ethel’s sister for a time), the cross-country convertible cruise following their wedding, the seal that animal-loving Ethel spontaneously brought home to the delight of her plenitude of youngsters, and random football games on the beach communicate a lifestyle bred in fun-loving privilege and still untroubled by the hard era ahead.
The news footage has been seen before, but cross-cut with the home movies, takes on a startling acuteness: Ethel laughing freely as she mentions during the JFK campaign that her kids think “it’s taking an awful lot of time for Uncle Jack to become president,” later whispering soberly through laryngitis about the strain of campaigning, this time for RFK; Robert feeding Cesar Chavez a morsel of food, later announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Indianapolis, to an eruption of screams.
Often framed in the footage next to the strong-jawed, hypnotically watchable duo of John and Robert, Ethel is poised to be upstaged, but Rory’s effective focus doggedly steers our eyes in the direction of the cute, vivacious young woman with the high forehead, large teeth and artless lack of self-seriousness. That politicians’ wives need boundless energy is a no-brainer. Indeed, this is one of the recurring points of admiration from the Kennedy children’s Greek chorus of praise for their self-effacing mother. We learn that young Ethel was a born athlete (unlike Robert), a self-professed fan of the campaign trail’s strenuous demands (also unlike Robert), an unwavering hostess and — and! — pregnant for 99 months of her life. She also endured an inordinate amount of loss in her lifetime that would break many people. A plane crash took her parents, assassinations took her brother-in-law and husband, and a drug overdose and skiing accident, respectively, took her sons David and Michael.
During Rory’s interview, Ethel’s response to this haunting streak of bad fortune is plain, almost delivered with a shrug: “Nobody gets a free ride.” Indeed, present-day Ethel seems to have kept the brush-your-knees-off strength her children describe from their upbringing, if the buoyancy that once defined her character has faded. She’s reluctant to talk about herself, and even more so to take credit for raising eleven children. She says something interesting about her late husband to Rory, that “nothing came naturally to Daddy, he had to struggle for everything.” Though Ethel, like her brother-in-law John, was more at ease with the relentless social aspects of politics, in her daughter’s film she’s confronted with the thing that doesn’t come naturally to her: accepting solo recognition.
“Ethel” is, essentially, a tribute. While watching it, I found myself thinking of another, better documentary, Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.” Polley, also the youngest child of a sizeable brood, similarly interviews her array of siblings and parents, but as a means of probing her family, willfully finding the bad along with the good, the secrets and lies along with the admiration and love. This isn’t in Rory Kennedy’s sights, as she opts instead for a pointedly rose-colored view of her mother and father. I wanted something meatier, not in the scandal-ridden or morbid-curiosity sense, but in terms of a complex portrait of a woman inside a complex family — perhaps the most complex of 20th-century American history. Yet some people have greatness and pain steeped so sharply and publically in their lineage, that a hug feels better, and in certain cases more appropriate, than yet another magnifying glass. It isn’t hurting anybody.
“Ethel” debuts October 18 at 9pm on HBO. The film screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and went on to play at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival. Read more about Ethel and Rory Kennedy in our coverage of the TCA.