Few American dynasties hold the same mystique as the Kennedy clan. Defined largely by professional triumph and personal heartache, the Kennedys are the closest thing the United States has to royalty, and as the years go by, the amount of historical miscellanea that is produced or unearthed about the family seems to grow exponentially. Even as the kings and queens of the dynasty grow old and die, which is a far less tragic exit than many members of the family, our nation’s collective fascination deepens and intensifies. One of the latest pieces about the Kennedy empire is “Ethel,” a film by Rory Kennedy, about her mother, Ethel Kennedy, wife of slain senator and presidential nominee Robert F. Kennedy. What could have been a cutesy, too familial Valentine’s Day card ends up being an intensely powerful portrait of love and liberalism.
Rory Kennedy, who produced, directed, and narrated the documentary, was born a few short months after Robert Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the last of Ethel and Robert’s eleven children. Since she never knew her father, part of the documentary is digging at the past so she can have a more full understanding of her parents’ relationship and what kind of man her father was. And while the movie often contextualizes Ethel’s accomplishments against her husband’s, Rory does a good job of painting her mother as a strong, independent woman whose work, especially after his death, equaled and often eclipsed Robert’s.
The documentary makes a convincing argument for Ethel’s upbringing as a kind of sideways equivalent to the Kennedys. A member of the Skakel family, who were primarily from tony Greenwich, Connecticut, their family was, unlike the Kennedys, a self-made one, with Ethel’s father a day laborer-turned-energy baron. The Skakels, also unlike the Kennedys, were more openly rambunctious, and in the documentary, Ethel recounts that when the kids would ride the train into New York, her brothers would ride on top of the train. More recently, the Skakel name has been in the press for the 2002 conviction of Michael Skakel, Ethel’s nephew, for the 1975 murder of then-15-year-old Martha Moxley in Greenwich. The case was the subject of both a high profile nonfiction book by OJ Simpson prosecutor Mark Fuhrman and a fictionalized Griffin Dunne novel. The documentary, perhaps wisely, avoids any mention of Michael or the murder.
The Skakel family would often vacation with the Kennedys, and after Robert had a two-year relationship with Ethel’s sister, he and Ethel began to date. By all accounts it was love at first sight, and the two were inseparable after finally getting together. The documentary follows a straight line – from Bobby’s decision to campaign for his brother John F. Kennedy, to his battling of the mafia, his brief stint on the House of Un-American Activities Commission, his own political aspirations (first modest, then presidential), to the assassinations of both JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. (who at one point was a potential RFK Vice Presidential candidate), climaxing, of course, with Robert’s own assassination.
While the movie is unadorned stylistically, composed of a series of talking head interviews with various Kennedy family members, intercut with historical footage and brief sections of voiceover narration provided by Rory herself, it does yield some surprisingly affecting results. Most of these are from moments of banter between Ethel and Rory, such as when Rory poses the question of where Ethel was when JFK announced his presidential run and Ethel shoots back (complete with a cackle), “How am I supposed to know? That was fifty years ago!”
Of course, the movie is most emotionally riveting when Ethel discusses Robert’s reason for running for president, citing the Vietnam war as “90%” of the reason why he joined the race, and describing the period after the JFK assassination as “six months of blackness.” What makes these sections even more powerful is the sensation you get that, at the time, it really must have felt like anything was possible. American liberalism, that bright, shining, civically-minded ideal that anybody who votes blue still feels whenever they’re in that election booth, was at its most potent and powerful when the Kennedys were still alive. There’s a story Ethel tells about Robert being so deeply scarred by visiting underprivileged families in the deep South that he could barely eat his own dinner. That anecdote speaks to the selflessness and sympathy that defines the Democratic party at its best. When RFK died, so too died that idealism and possibility for the future.
But what Rory makes an argument for is Ethel’s transformative power following Robert’s murder. Ethel came from a staunchly Republican family and became one of the guiding lights of the Democratic party, a behind-the-scenes player who campaigned just as hard and heartily as her husband. And what’s more – she has worked tirelessly since Robert’s death to continue his various crusades on a whole host of social and political issues. She was also able to raise her eleven children, to the best of her ability (two have since died, one in an accident and another of a drug overdose), and instill in them a similar commitment to bettering society by any means necessary. While the documentary could have maybe used a little more zing, and you wonder why Rory never satisfactorily probed the inner-workings of Robert and Ethel’s relationship (the Kennedys were, of course, notorious ladies’ men), the movie still packs an unexpected wallop. The old saying goes that the personal is political; it works both ways. [A-]
“Ethel” airs tonight on HBO at 9 PM.