“Ethel" 9 p.m. Thursday, HBO
One of the most striking elements in Rory Kennedy’s affectionate and revealing documentary about her mother is that those old enough to remember the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 perhaps remember as well a shattering sense of grief and hopelessness that the shooting brought.
And yet, Ethel Kennedy, 84, seems to have never lost hope and certainly not her faith. She believes her husband and his brother, John, are in a glorious place. She knows she will see them all again, believes it with all of her considerable heart.
The subject of HBO’s “Ethel" has not given an interview in 25 years. While some may think sitting down with the youngest of 11 children behind the camera is unlikely to yield a detailed or objective portrait, you will come away from the film understanding a great deal about an extraordinary woman who played much more than just a supporting role in a significant period in our history. Perhaps more important, you will get a better sense of that historic period as well.
From the election of John F. Kennedy onward, the nation got to know the two most visible of the Kennedy women: the reserved, patrician Jacqueline, who spoke in Marilyn Monroe-like near whispers, and the fun-loving, girl-next-door Ethel Skakel Kennedy, the wife of the president’s closest confidant, his brother Bobby. As different as they were, the two women had things in common: Although they understood that their grief over the assassinations of their husbands was shared by the nation, they each found ways to shield their families from too much scrutiny. Jackie, not always comfortable in the role of a political wife and shaken by Robert Kennedy’s death, married a Greek tycoon and moved with her two kids to Skorpios. Ethel doubled down to raise her family, including Rory, born six months after Bobby’s death.
To the public, Ethel has seemed to be the keeper of the flame of her husband’s legacy of crusading for social justice. We understand from the film, however, that if anything, Ethel’s commitment to social causes was even deeper than her husband’s. That’s why the younger children, who barely remember their father, say Ethel’s passion has been the primary source of inspiration for them.
Ethel Skakel had little interest in politics growing up, but once she got married in 1950 and found herself part of the very political Kennedy clan, she took to campaigning as if she’d been born into the family business. Her own family was Republican and thought she was “a little communist."
Although Rory Kennedy is the director, she doesn’t always have a willing “star" in front of the camera. Asked about that June night at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968, Ethel says simply, “talk about something else." Rory’s narration mentions the deaths of her brothers, David, from a drug overdose, and Michael, from a skiing accident, but these aren’t subjects Ethel wants to talk about. She does talk about time after the assassination of John Kennedy, though, as “six months of just blackness."
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, an event that has been extensively researched, documented and written about as few events in American history ever have. The deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK were every bit as shocking to the nation.
But to younger generations, these events may be merely history — significant, of course, but not occurrences they personally remember.
That’s one of the reasons “Ethel" is an important film: We are hearing the voice of someone who was there and someone who is still with us.