HBO’s feature-length documentary “Ethel” — which premieres Oct. 18 — isn’t a
whitewash, exactly, yet nor is it history in the objective sense. Made by Rory
Kennedy about her camera-shy mother, it’s a no-warts look at America’s royal
family, the Kennedys, from the perspective of Robert Kennedy’s widow, and the
11 kids she raised after his tragic
assassination. Leave the tabloid trash for
someone else to take out. On its own terms, “Ethel” is warm and wonderful.
Ethel Kennedy was actually
pregnant with Rory, the last of her 11 children, when Robert was killed, and
their interview reflects a woman whose pride in and affection for her late
husband endures. She gives him sole credit, for example, for their children’s
interest in helping the less fortunate and social justice, when, as Rory points out, she never
actually knew her dad.
Variety’s John Anderson already reviewed the film out of Sundance, and like “41,” HBO’s recent feture-length biopic of
George H.W. Bush, this is a portrait of a famous family told in celebratory as
opposed to journalistic fashion. As such, what’s revealed might not be the
entire picture — don’t hold your breath waiting for stories about the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe — yet what comes across is more personal, and intimate. Certainly
Ethel, given her reticence, appears unlikely to have opened up even this much
for any filmmaker who didn’t share her surname.
The project dutifully goes back to
Ethel’s youth, being wooed by Robert, and how he had to work at politics, which
actually came more naturally for her. The images of their household are nothing
less than idyllic – kids bounding everywhere, wildly competitive sports
contests, and the children nervous about being grilled regarding current events at the dinner table.
Of all the moments in “Ethel,” one stuck with me more than any other. Asked about the losses and grief she’s faced, the family matriarch simply says, “Nobody gets a free ride.”
Despite the money, power and privilege, the Kennedys’ storied ride through the world of American politics has been anything but free, but has also yielded some of the most indelible moments of the last half-century. Perhaps that’s why the price for HBO seems like such a small one to pay for the experience of spending this time up close and personal with “Ethel.”