Rory Kennedy, who produced, directed, and narrated the documentary, was born a few short months after Robert Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the last of Ethel and Robert's eleven children. Since she never knew her father, part of the documentary is digging at the past so she can have a more full understanding of her parents' relationship and what kind of man her father was. And while the movie often contextualizes Ethel's accomplishments against her husband's, Rory does a good job of painting her mother as a strong, independent woman whose work, especially after his death, equaled and often eclipsed Robert's.
The Skakel family would often vacation with the Kennedys, and after Robert had a two-year relationship with Ethel's sister, he and Ethel began to date. By all accounts it was love at first sight, and the two were inseparable after finally getting together. The documentary follows a straight line – from Bobby's decision to campaign for his brother John F. Kennedy, to his battling of the mafia, his brief stint on the House of Un-American Activities Commission, his own political aspirations (first modest, then presidential), to the assassinations of both JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. (who at one point was a potential RFK Vice Presidential candidate), climaxing, of course, with Robert's own assassination.
Of course, the movie is most emotionally riveting when Ethel discusses Robert's reason for running for president, citing the Vietnam war as "90%" of the reason why he joined the race, and describing the period after the JFK assassination as "six months of blackness." What makes these sections even more powerful is the sensation you get that, at the time, it really must have felt like anything was possible. American liberalism, that bright, shining, civically-minded ideal that anybody who votes blue still feels whenever they're in that election booth, was at its most potent and powerful when the Kennedys were still alive. There's a story Ethel tells about Robert being so deeply scarred by visiting underprivileged families in the deep South that he could barely eat his own dinner. That anecdote speaks to the selflessness and sympathy that defines the Democratic party at its best. When RFK died, so too died that idealism and possibility for the future.
But what Rory makes an argument for is Ethel's transformative power following Robert's murder. Ethel came from a staunchly Republican family and became one of the guiding lights of the Democratic party, a behind-the-scenes player who campaigned just as hard and heartily as her husband. And what's more – she has worked tirelessly since Robert's death to continue his various crusades on a whole host of social and political issues. She was also able to raise her eleven children, to the best of her ability (two have since died, one in an accident and another of a drug overdose), and instill in them a similar commitment to bettering society by any means necessary. While the documentary could have maybe used a little more zing, and you wonder why Rory never satisfactorily probed the inner-workings of Robert and Ethel's relationship (the Kennedys were, of course, notorious ladies' men), the movie still packs an unexpected wallop. The old saying goes that the personal is political; it works both ways. [A-]
"Ethel" airs tonight on HBO at 9 PM.