ethelmovie.comThe newest film from documentarian Rory Kennedy ("Ghosts of Abu Ghraib") is a deeply personal one — it's about her mother, Ethel, best known as Robert F. Kennedy's widow and the mother of his eleven children. (Rory, the eleventh, was born six months after his death.)
It's this "best known" that seems to have motivated Rory to make the film — that there's more to the former Ethel Skakel than her late husband, her many significant in-laws, or, well, not being Jackie — and almost nobody is in a better position to shade a portrait of Ethel as a wife, a mother, and a witness to much of 20th-century American history.
Because Ethel is also a rebellious spirit, competitive at "friendly" games and a wretched cook. The film's first hour is hilariously informative: briskly edited for maximum comic timing, Ethel and seven of Rory's siblings share tales from Ethel's college days (Ethel and Jean Kennedy threw a demerit book down the incinerator so they could attend the Harvard/Yale game; Ethel read the racing form every morning); add bits of detail to the story of her relationship with RFK (he had dated her sister first); and reveal that, with 11 children, some aspects of housekeeping will fall through the cracks. At one point, Rory asks her brother Joe, "Can you describe Mummy as a homemaker?" Joe, after an extremely long pause, blankly says, "No," before the audience is told that Ethel once concocted a skillet "breakfast" using petroleum jelly and bananas. (Ethel denies this.)
Many Americans have come to think of the Kennedys as icons, figures defined by their various tragedies — and also as something of a single organism, instead of as individuals. "Ethel" is quite effective at re-humanizing not just its primary subject but the Kennedys as a family; talking about the merciless atmosphere that surrounded games and sports, one sibling observes that coming in second was only okay "if you're the Shrivers." You feel the depth of Robert and Ethel's bond, the "joy" Courtney Kennedy recalls her father got from her mother.
But the narrative gets bogged down a little when it reaches RFK's Senate years. Rory wants to include significant events from her mother's perspective, and to show the partnership her father had with Ethel, and in fact the entire family (on one European trip, young Joe took over signing autographs when his father's hand cramped up). While she succeeds in illustrating the "step-in-step" way her parents' marriage functioned, viewers are less informed about, and therefore may be more interested in, Ethel's journey after her husband's assassination. (A touching word choice worth noting: The family tends to describe RFK as "lost." Not that he died, or was killed, but "when we lost Daddy.")
"Ethel" touches on a few key points: she sent her kids around the world, to Indian reservations and to work with Cesar Chavez, to teach them to give back; she helped found the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Rory elicits a nice quote from Ethel on the subject of where her children's commitment to public service comes from -- "I think it was the other gene" — and when she reminds Ethel that it's she who raised all of them, Ethel shrugs, "I just don't feel I can take the credit." But the decades after her husband's death seem rushed through and perfunctory.
That said, "Ethel" is worth watching. Rory uses fresh archival footage and photos, not the ones we've all seen dozens of times, and the first two thirds is a fascinating portrait of a witness to history — and to how a mother and a daughter talk to each other about their lives.
"Ethel" is available on HBO's On Demand channel.