The old Kennedy home movies, used richly here, are as hypnotically alluring and golden as ever, as if they’ve been kept in something holier than climate-controlled vaults. “Ethel” is free of historians, reporters and confidants who normally provide insights in (and sometimes clutter up) most biographical documentaries. But at several points in the film, a viewer can sense the difficulties Rory was up against. She has brought a camera inside the family circle, and not just to film one of those touch football games.
“Ethel” takes a delicate approach to much of its trickiest territory. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 doesn’t come until 54 minutes in, an event, as Ethel recalls, that unleashed “a tidal wave of grief.” RFK’s assassination in June 1968 comes in the film’s final act, and only then does a viewer begin to wonder whether “Ethel” is still too focused on him and not her. When Rory says, “And then we lost Daddy,” Ethel pauses, then smiles tightly.
“Let’s talk about something else.”
There is, in fact, a lot else that got the gentle touch here, if not leapfrogged altogether. There was the death of Ethel’s parents in a plane crash when she was 27; the two sons Ethel lost (David, at 28, to a drug overdose in 1984; Michael, at 39, to a skiing accident in 1997). There is Ethel’s relationship to her in-laws (living or dead; the word “Jackie” doesn’t come up once); and then there are a few other misfortunes and tragedies that swept through their lives and go unmentioned. (Rory’s 1999 wedding was postponed when her cousin John Kennedy Jr. was killed in a private plane crash with his wife and sister-in-law en route to the event.)
Faith saw her through it all (Ethel continues to attend Mass every day), and as for any insight into grief and survival, she says: “Nobody gets a free ride. . . . Have your wits about you, dig in and do what you can. Because it might not last.”
The stories of “wild” Ethel — receiver of speeding tickets; ski-slope demon; alleged horse thief; sticking her tongue out at cameras — go only so far. To compensate for her mother’s circumspection, Rory turns instead to her siblings. To a person, they describe the feeling of being introduced and honored as RFK’s descendants, heirs to his legacy of public service, and never introduced as the product of Ethel.
“It makes me so mad,” Courtney Kennedy Hill, 56, the fifth child, says early in the film. “What about the one who delivered us and carried us for nine months and has been with us for the last 40 years?”
‘It’s the hardest movie I’ve ever made,” Rory Kennedy says, looking back. “It’s not my comfort zone.”
The only reason she made it all was because Sheila Nevins, HBO’s longtime head of documentary films, who has backed and aired several of Kennedy’s projects, pestered her for years to do it. At some point, it’s almost journalistic malfeasance to ignore the fact that your best story might well be the famous family that raised you.