Best of Hot Docs 2012: Ethel explores the Kennedy mystique
Considering thatEthel—a new documentary about Ethel Skakel Kennedy—is a family affair, you know there’s not much chance of straying far from the official Camelot canon.
Still, it’s a fascinating ride through one of the most tumultuous times in American history. Produced and directed by Ethel’s daughter Rory Kennedy, the film is chock full of newsreel footage, interviews with family members, and previously unreleased home movies. All together, these elements provide a clear, albeit rose-colored window into the workings of an exceptional family.
When we first meet the teenage Ethel, she’s a scrappy, athletic sparkplug, gloriously youthful in glowing Technicolor. Later, in the orbit of her husband, Bobby Kennedy and his extended family, Ethel becomes a dutiful wife, political campaigner, and mother of eleven children (it is noted, at one point, that Ethel spent a staggering 99 months of her life pregnant).
But it’s also clear she’s no pushover. Smart, funny, and driven, Ethel is shown to be extremely well-suited to the vigor of America’s pre-eminent political dynasty. Unlike some Kennedy wives—such as John’s wife Jackie and Ted’s Joan, who always remained outsiders—Ethel, it’s clear, didn’t so much marry into the Kennedys as become one.
Even so, Ethel is, at points, only nominally about Ethel herself. With a life so firmly enmeshed with those of her husband, in-laws, and the 1960s itself, it’s natural for the film to focus on some of the biggest stories of the era: JFK, civil rights, Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and, of course, Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 run for president.
As the presidential primaries grind on, and with enthusiasm for Bobby’s campaign approaching a religious fervor, one can’t help but feel a mounting dread. We know what’s coming next, and it’s still an open wound, heartbreaking even after more than 40 years.
Asked about her husband’s assassination, Ethel simply says, “Talk about something else.”
Indeed, there are plenty of other topics to cover, as there’s much more to Ethel than just being a Kennedy wife. Tempered by tragedy and disciplined by a sense of responsibility, Ethel goes on to become a promoter of social justice and liberal causes well into her 80s.
Yes, there are times when Ethel comes close to being a Ted Sorensen/Arthur Schlesinger-style hagiography, but in the end it gels.
It works because sometimes—especially now—we need to be reminded how important political heroes are, and that the sum of their ideas can be more important than personal flaws. It’s a simple message that Ethel conveys with clarity and eloquence.
Ethel screens at the Best of Hot Docs at the Vancity Theatre, on Saturday (June 23)
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