Director Rory Kennedy is a good daughter, which is precisely why “Ethel” is such a stiff film, a Kennedy family album of insight-free affection and nostalgia that lobs long, lofting softballs at its subject: the now 83-year-old Ethel Skakel Kennedy, widow of Robert and witness to history. Making a movie about one’s mother is tricky enough, but the helmer’s subject, who comes across as a seemingly lovable eccentric, doesn’t really want to talk and, when she does, offers very little of what one hopes she might. Docu will attract viewers to HBO, where it will likely flourish.
Luckily for helmer Kennedy, she has her siblings to provide context and color in what is essentially a series of reflections on the ’60s, a portrait that’s as much about the late Robert F. Kennedy as it is about his reticent wife and the mother of his 11 children. The Kennedy “kids” who appear on screen — Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the third oldest, is now 58 — are charming and speak lovingly about their mother, but since the film stays in such safe territory, they don’t have to dig very deeply.
Much is left out of the Ethel story, but the strategy is such that the filmmaker lets herself off the hook: By essentially ending her account of her mother’s life at the conclusion of the ’60s, she doesn’t have to deal to any great extent with the death of her siblings: David, of a drug overdose in 1984, and Michael, in a skiing accident in 1997. Both are mentioned, but virtually in passing. White House peccadilloes are sidestepped, scandals ignored. There’s plenty of background on the wealthy Skakel family but nothing about the Martha Moxley murder case, for which Ethel’s nephew Michael Skakel was convicted in 2002. One would like to know what Ethel thinks of all this, but it remains a mystery. The film isn’t obliged to go into any of these topics, of course, but in not doing so it disqualifies itself as a historical document.
What “Ethel” does offer is a fine compilation of archival material, a homemovie writ large and a worthy reminder of what the Kennedys represented, politically and spiritually, during the era of Camelot. The still photos and footage of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, who took their passel of children everywhere — from Cape Cod to Hickory Hill to the Senate Hearing Room — speak to family values of a real, tangible sort that transcends politics and politicking. And in revisiting the catastrophes of the ’60s, “Ethel” naturally pulls at the heartstrings, even if this love letter from daughter to mother feels protracted at 90 minutes.
Production values are fine, notably Buddy Squires’ photography and Miriam Cutler’s score, which makes clever references to the periods in question.