HBO Documentary Film: ETHEL

By Jef Dinsmore on Oct 19, 2012 to Documentaries

Overview: Not so much now as in decades past but the Kennedy’s, of course, were an iconic family. They were the closest thing to royalty the U. S. had witnessed for a long time. But, that was the public image that was generated; that is what the country seemed to have wanted at the time and they got it. A part of that family is Ethel Kennedy, the last of her generation. Now, at 84, she is given the opportunity to look back at her life and offer a glimpse of what is was truly like to be a Kennedy.

Expectations: First and foremost I am watching this documentary because I enjoy the presentations of this filmmaker. She is Rory Kennedy. She has produced and directed a number of documentaries many of which have appeared on HBO through the years. I particularly liked AMERICAN HOLLOW from 1999. I have also seen her five-part PANDEMIC: FIGHTING AIDS; A BOY”S LIFE; INDIAN POINT: IMAGINING THE UNIMAGINABLE; THE GHOSTS OF ABU GHRAIB and THANK YOU MR. PRESIDENT: HELEN THOMAS AT THE WHITE HOUSE. Though not always strongly interested in the subject matter chosen I enjoy her approach, her imagery and her tone. ETHEL is one of those topics I’m not bowled over to see but I will enjoy nevertheless.

Miss Kennedy knows her subject matter here very well. Rory is the youngest of eleven children born to Ethel Kennedy and her late husband Robert. Not that it is a major worry for me but the thought did cross my mind if Rory can edit together a film without bias towards her subject. Will we see the matriarch warts and all? Will we gloss over the difficult issues like the assassinations of her brother-in-law and then her husband? Or will they be glossed over to make way for a more generalized history lesson and cute family anecdotes? And with all of this, how much of it are going to be actual words spoken from Ethel herself?

So, as I see it, the film could go one of two ways: it could be a typical Rory K. piece or just an elaborate home movie. Regardless, I’m not sure this needs a 98 minute treatment. It gets one because of the relationship the filmmaker has with the subject. However, the film is credited to be the first look at the family from inside the family itself. Here’s hoping it captures something interesting. With that I guess it is time to watch HBO DOCUMENTARY FILM: ETHEL.                                                                                                                            

Gut Reaction: Upon watching the documentary I have to say that Rory K. gave us two documentaries in one; that is why it played for those 98 minutes. It was a step by step look at the careers of Robert and John and the social clime of the times as well as the personal home movie. Together they made for a meaty film that didn’t need to be that long. Rory tried to push a few topics on Ethel who simply refused to answer or just laughed it off but every possible political event and family story got told. One funny reveal was the fact that Ethel K. was raised Republican and ended up marrying into the biggest Democratic family in the States. I felt that the film ETHEL was not the usual pace and tone that Rory usually delivers. Maybe, that is why I thought it dragged on too long.    

In Conclusion: There is no doubt that Ethel Kennedy meets the definition of matriarch. The only difference was she did it on a national stage in front of the public eye. She still has her family around her and she still holds court as it were. But, she is really no different from many a woman of a certain age who stood by their husband; raised a family and now lives in the fondest of memories and in the love of that family. My mother is like that; jeez maybe I should make a film about her. Thanks for the idea Rory, but it won’t happen.










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