Ethel: Sundance Film Review

"Ethel" is unquestionably the real deal.

Debuting on HBO this year, the documentary is a revealing and intimate portrait of Robert F. Kennedy's widow Ethel, directed by her daughter Rory.

PARK CITY — Americans never appear to tire of documentaries about the Kennedy political clan and its many offshoots. Even if the topic seems like it’s well since hit saturation level, this intimate, revealing portrait of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, directed by their youngest daughter, is a unique installment in the cultural history of this storied family. Premiering on HBO in 2012, Ethel is certain to draw repeat viewings and find its rightful place in both educational and cultural venues as well.

Rory Kennedy has produced and directed dozens of social-issue TV documentaries and earned several Emmy nominations, but convincing her mother Ethel Kennedy to sit down for an interview after avoiding cameras for more than 20 years must have been no small feat. Proud, private and surprisingly humorous, Ethel is a formidable subject and Kennedy approaches her in the only way she really can, by making a personal documentary that also covers some of the most momentous historical events of the 50s and 60s.

PHOTOS: Sundance 2012's Hottest Titles

From her parents’ courtship beginning in the late 40s, though their 1950 marriage and Robert Kennedy’s early career as a federal prosecutor and then counsel on Joe McCarthy’s notorious Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations (a position he subsequently resigned), Kennedy sets the stage for the momentous events of RFK’s political career, so closely linked with the accomplishments of his older brother.

John F. Kennedy’s senatorial and presidential campaigns were clearly family efforts, with Bobby at his brother’s side as campaign manager and Ethel pitching in, right up to JFK’s 1960 White House win. The younger Kennedy’s kids were frequently around too – visiting the FBI building or their father’s office. “The children were always included in everything we did,” recalls Ethel.

Although Bobby didn’t feel entirely comfortable in his new appointment as US Attorney General and was publicly criticized for his lack of experience, he ultimately played a crucial role in some of the most momentous developments of the early 1960s, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the success of the Civil Rights movement, and anti-mob investigations and prosecutions, much to the frustration of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Following JFK’s 1963 assassination, Robert Kennedy won election as a Senator from New York, distinguishing his term with his opposition to escalation of the Vietnam War and continued support of Civil Rights issues. His decision to run for President in the 1968 campaign led directly to his assassination in Los Angeles on June 5.

Rory Kennedy never knew her father – the last of 11 children, she was born six months after his death and raised by her mother, along with her older siblings. After her husband’s death, Ethel continued his advocacy of civil and human rights, helping to establish the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and Justice, and traveling the world advocating the organization’s mission.

The Kennedy matriarch, now 83, finds it hard to accept the praise her kids so effusively offer. “I just don’t feel like I can take the credit,” for raising the family, Kennedy says, despite years of single motherhood. The scope of her children’s dedication to social justice issues belies her modesty, however, with several of them carrying on the ideals of their parents public advocacy. There’s no question that this is a wealthy, privileged family, but more than many others, they have generously and repeatedly given back in a variety of ways.

As a Kennedy herself, Rory has unprecedented access to both family members and archival material, but incisively keeps the focus on her mother, rather than being drawn too far afield by the clan’s many diverse storylines. Cherished family photos, amusing home movies, sober newsreel footage and revealing interviews with her siblings Kathleen, Joe, Bobby, Courtney, Kerry, Chris and Max provide the film with an unmatched perspective that makes it a significant historical document in itself. Primarily, however, it’s a moving and inspiring testament to a woman who has turned opportunity and adversity into a legacy that will be remembered by generations of Americans.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres
Production company: HBO Documentary Films presents a Moxie Firecracker production
Director: Rory Kennedy
Screenwriter: Mark Bailey
Producers: Rory Kennedy, Jack Youngelson
Director of photography: Buddy Squires
Music: Miriam Cutler
Editors: Azin Samari
No rating, 97 minutes