"Ethel" (9 tonight, HBO) is a big-hearted documentary, full of love and life, not as tough as its subject, but certainly as elegant.
Directed by Rory Kennedy, the last of Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Skakel Kennedy's children, born six months after her father's murder, the film is an appropriate tribute to a woman who raised 11 children, lost two of them and held her ground.
The film features the first interview Ethel Kennedy has given in 25 years, and don't think because she's talking to her daughter, she's cooperative. She's mostly candid, but there are places she refuses to go. One of those places is talking about her late husband's assassination. That's understandable, but her silence, actually, her inability to speak of it, speaks volumes about her lingering pain as a wife and mother, and the nation's lingering pain surrounding that awful day.
But the documentary is mostly joyous and illuminating. It tells about how the couple met; for her it was love at first sight; RFK, on the other hand, dated a Skakel sister for two years. The Skakels, as wealthy as the Kennedys and as big a clan, were Republicans. After Ethel and RFK got married in 1950 and she took up the Democratic flag, she says, her family considered her a Communist.
While the Kennedys thrived on order, Ethel raised her children as she was raised, as though life was full of adventure. The couple moved to a large Virginia farm where they had some 15 dogs and assorted farm animals. And once RFK became the Attorney General, Ethel would bring the children to watch hearings and talk to them about daddy's work. She became a famed hostess, throwing parties where cabinet members would be pushed into the pool, until her beloved brother-in-law JFK told her that had to stop. After her husband's death, she continued working on some of the issues RFK championed.
Rory Kennedy's goal in making this film is to give her mother credit as a partner in her father's work and as the woman primarily responsible for the children. (Ethel refuses to take that credit, attributing the family's social justice values to RFK.) But the film also reminds viewers of her father's work. At a time when the poorest among us aren't mentioned much by politicians (Darn you, John Edwards!), the scenes of the senator meeting with poor children resonates.
It's clear from this documentary that Ethel was (is!) a pistol; her children describe her as the most competitive person they know (Second was only acceptable for the Shrivers, says one son). But she's also pragmatic and faith-filled. She knew to expect the harsh blows of life yet she also knew to focus on what was present, not what was lost.
How else did to describe the complete joy of her final child's birth, months after she'd lost her husband? Now, at 84, she has 33 grandchildren and still longs for more.
The final scenes in "Ethel" shows the subject at the helm of a sailboat packed with her family. It's a perfect metaphor for a woman living an abundant life, whose sailed through waters rough and smooth, who steered her own course and whose North star has always been family.