I am a little bit of a Kennedy junkie. They were like the Kardashians of their day – except smarter, prettier, funnier, and with the potential to change the country. So, when I found out that documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy – youngest daughter of Robert Kennedy – was making a film about her mother, Ethel, I immediately became ridiculously excited. Rory Kennedy has made multiple fascinating, even-handed documentaries and I was looking forward to her take on her own family story.
I was not disappointed.
The focus of Ethel is, obviously, its namesake. Ethel Kennedy was a vibrant and ethical political figure and mother who has used her influence to promote humanitarian causes and raise her children to do the same. Rory Kennedy makes it very clear that she wants this film to be about her mother’s achievements, but Ethel was also wife of Robert Kennedy, one of the most tragic political leaders in this country’s recent history. Ethel cannot avoid a discussion of Kennedy politics, but it does focus on the emotional and domestic side of politics and makes the claim that the domestic politics within the Kennedy home were just as relevant as the more public, male-centered political world. The film works so well because it refuses to separate the two realms. Ethel’s influence had a much wider range than her public persona seems to suggest.
The documentary features interviews with each of the surviving children of Robert and Ethel. In total, the fertile couple raised 11 children. This, alone, is quite the accomplishment, but consider raising 11 children in the 1960s amidst political strife, paparazzi, and, tragically, too many untimely deaths. The most poignant part of the documentary, as expected, is Ethel’s recollection of the murder of her husband. She doesn’t want to talk about it, but her daughter pushes, hoping to break through mother’s tough exterior, and breaking through ours in the process. I’m not ashamed to admit that I bawled like a baby through the second half of this film.
That said, there are also moments of hilarity and joy in Ethel. Did you know, for example, that Robert and Ethel had a pet seal for a while? That Ethel went to court for stealing a horse? That the family owned 19 dogs at one time? Did you know that the couple was so concerned with keeping their children informed that many important White House decisions took place while children were running around the Oval Office? These were hands-on, exciting parents who affected their children just as they affected their country. If you are looking for an inspiring, optimistic, personal documentary, please see this film and be awed.