“Ethel”: A Kennedy matriarch gets her day in daughter Rory’s film
Published: January 21, 2012 07:08PM
Updated: January 22, 2012 07:40AM
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Family life for Bobby Kennedy and his wife Ethel, with two of their sons. The image is seen in the documentary "Ethel," which screened the Sundance Film Festival. Paul Schutzer | Time Life Pictures/Getty Images


“Ethel”

Documentary Premieres

**** (four stars)

It’s clear from the outset that “Ethel,” director Rory Kennedy’s documentary homage to her mother and wife of late Robert F. Kennedy, is at base the story of a humble woman uninterested in telling her own story.
“All this introspection!” Ethel says early in the film. “I hate it!”
Of course the youngest of Ethel and Bobby’s 11 children has plenty of material to cull from her 8 remaining siblings. And being a Kennedy herself, it goes without saying that Rory can always marshal history itself in service of her narrative arsenal.
Thanks to her siblings’ spirited sense of humor, not to mention her own mother’s spunky zest for life, “Ethel” radiates good vibes from the get-go. The deep gloom of the Kennedy brothers’ assassinations in 1963 and 1968, and the weight of United States history throughout the tumultuous ‘60s, gather significant gravitas along the way, reminding us once more of the steely resolve that beat at the center of both Jack and Bobby’s respective families. Compassionate, gregarious, but also competitive in the extreme, the film is equal parts family homage and a poignant reminder of how much vision the Kennedy’s contributed to American political life, even if we’re still left to wonder what might have been had they lived longer.
With the elder Kennedy’s wife destined for the larger spotlight, “Ethel” is a valuable reminder of how much the other Kennedy wife helped mold history at her husband’s side. We learn that while Bobby didn’t enjoy campaigning, Ethel revelled in it. In addition to betting on horses, she also let them run free in backyard with the Kennedy children, burned her demerit book, and in her own small way stood up to then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
In the end, however, Bobby’s shadow comes across as too inescapable. Born some six months after her father’s assassination, there’s a sense that Kennedy sometimes tries to channel the spirit of a man she never knew. Though not a big fault—it’s Ethel, after all, who gets every poignant last word—but it’s testament to just how large America’s First Family looms even today. If you’re a Kennedy fan, or hail from a large Irish-Catholic family, this is one to take the children to.

—Ben Fulton

“Ethel” screens again:

• Saturday, Jan. 21, 6 p.m., Screening Room at Sundance Resort
• Thursday, Jan. 26, 9 p.m., Temple Theatre, Park City
• Saturday, Jan. 28, 6:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City