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Arts & Entertainment

Movie Review: Ethel

From Issue: Volume XX - Number 22

By Ben Miles

Emmy Award-winning documentarian Rory Kennedy – Ms. Kennedy won Television’s top trophy of achievement for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special for her 2007 HBO film, “Ghost of Abu Ghraib” – has now created a most moving celluloid account of her mother, Ethel. Titled simply “Ethel,” the film is an account of Ethel Kennedy’s life and times.

Married to Robert Kennedy in 1950, Ethel Skakel, unlike the Kennedys, comes from a self-made family. Her father George (her mother was named Ann Brannack Skakel), was a working man who did well in 20th century America. Founder of the vastly profitable Great Lakes Carbon Corporation, George achieved the archetypal American dream of personal success and capital abundance. Like the Kennedy’s, however, the Skakels were devout Catholics.

Indeed, Ethel met Jean Kennedy, sister to Robert, at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart. Ethel liked Robert from the start. Robert, however, had an eye for Ethel’s sister, Patricia. Robert and Patricia dated for two years, until Robert journeyed to what was then called Palestine to report on the emergence of Israel as a sovereign nation. When he returned, he reconnected with and eventually married Ethel.

Though Ethel’s family were staunch Republicans, the apolitical Ethel worked, along with Robert and the entire Kennedy clan, for John Kennedy’s first congressional campaign, in 1946. In fact, Ethel had written her college thesis on JFK’s erudite first book, “Why England Slept.” Soon her political inclinations had shifted. Not only had Ethel become an active democrat, she had also become an articulate political advocate. Unlike Robert, Ethel enjoyed the rigors of campaigning.

In 97 minutes we review a meaty slice of American history as seen through the experiences and perspectives of Ethel Kennedy. Not only do we glimpse the family’s jubilation at JFK’s winning election after election – from a congressional seat in the 1940s to the United Sates Senate in the 1950s and on to the presidency in the 1960s – we also share in the loss and grief that has long been the flipside of the Kennedy legacy. We also witness the intensity of RFK’s successful campaign for one of New York’s U.S. Senate seats in 1964, and we feel the family’s despair in the aftermath of his Quixotic presidential bid in 1968; it’s a subject that to this day the 83 year-old Ethel can barely speak on.

Rory is the eleventh child born to Robert and Ethel. Ethel gave birth to Rory six months subsequent to RFK’s assassination in June, 1968. So, of course, Rory makes use of testimony from seven of her siblings– including, the oldest Kathleen (who was once lieutenant governor of Maryland); Joe (a former U.S.

Congressman); and Bobby, Jr. (an environmental activist).Their memories are precious, being both personal and historic (two of Ethel’s sons – David and Michael – have died, in 1984 and 1997, respectively). Stories like the one about President Kennedy having to phone Ethel to warn her to not allow cabinet members to be pushed into RFK’s home swimming pool during gatherings are delightful and humanizing tidbits that allow us to feel like we’re listening to tales from our own family lineage. After all, though the Kennedy’s were our first family for only 1,000 days, they our forever etched in our minds as the closest thing that America has ever had to a royal family.

“Ethel” is currently in limited theatrical release and is scheduled for broadcast on HBO Television later this year. Check local listings.