HBO’s feature-length documentary “Ethel” -- which premieres Oct. 18 -- isn’t a whitewash, exactly, yet nor is it history in the objective sense. Made by Rory Kennedy about her camera-shy mother, it’s a no-warts look at America’s royal family, the Kennedys, from the perspective of Robert Kennedy’s widow, and the 11 kids she raised after his tragic assassination. Leave the tabloid trash for someone else to take out. On its own terms, “Ethel” is warm and wonderful.
Ethel Kennedy was actually pregnant with Rory, the last of her 11 children, when Robert was killed, and their interview reflects a woman whose pride in and affection for her late husband endures. She gives him sole credit, for example, for their children’s interest in helping the less fortunate and social justice, when, as Rory points out, she never actually knew her dad.
Variety's John Anderson already reviewed the film out of Sundance, and like “41,” HBO’s recent feture-length biopic of George H.W. Bush, this is a portrait of a famous family told in celebratory as opposed to journalistic fashion. As such, what’s revealed might not be the entire picture -- don't hold your breath waiting for stories about the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe -- yet what comes across is more personal, and intimate. Certainly Ethel, given her reticence, appears unlikely to have opened up even this much for any filmmaker who didn’t share her surname.
The project dutifully goes back to Ethel’s youth, being wooed by Robert, and how he had to work at politics, which actually came more naturally for her. The images of their household are nothing less than idyllic – kids bounding everywhere, wildly competitive sports contests, and the children nervous about being grilled regarding current events at the dinner table.
Of all the moments in "Ethel," one stuck with me more than any other. Asked about the losses and grief she's faced, the family matriarch simply says, "Nobody gets a free ride."
Despite the money, power and privilege, the Kennedys' storied ride through the world of American politics has been anything but free, but has also yielded some of the most indelible moments of the last half-century. Perhaps that's why the price for HBO seems like such a small one to pay for the experience of spending this time up close and personal with "Ethel."