Work for Your Country
“Why should I have to answer all these questions?” Seated before her daughter’s camera, Ethel Skakel Kennedy smiles. From off-screen, you can hear Rory Kennedy has an answer: “Well, we’re making a documentary about you.”
Here both women laugh, Ethel dabbing at her eyes and doubling over, almost out of frame when the shot cuts to Rory, also laughing. Their resemblance is striking. This even as everyone knows already how much Ethel and Robert Kennedy’s children look so much like both their parents, with their father’s large front teeth and their mom’s crinkly eyes, and even as so many of them have been so visible, from the time they were very young, Seeing Ethel and Rory together—and hearing their similar vocal rhythms—you might be reminded of the family’s legend and legacy, brilliant and tragic. But you might also be focused on these two women, together, their intimacy and ease with one another.
As Rory describes her project, titled Ethel, she briefly describes how she came to it. “I found myself wanting to tell my mother’s story,” she says, “About the life she shared with daddy and the life she shared with us, her children, a personal story. But because her life was intertwined with history, more than that.” At first, this sounds like what you’d expect: how else might you describe a story so celebrated and so public, and also so deeply private, so beyond the understanding of someone outside it? The “more than that” is ineluctably elusive. As it turns out, however, the “more than that” is less a broad historical frame than a center, unknowable and also acutely exposed, repeatedly—even incessantly—recorded and photographed and narrated.
The Kennedys’ celebrity is a function of that capacity to record, of course: Jack Kennedy was among the first political television stars, his charisma vivid on small screens that made him seem accessible in living rooms. Even as many viewers of this film will remember—or have read about—the first televised presidential debates, which confirmed the electorate’s transition into a particular kind of voting, an appreciation of performance and appearance. Ethel doesn’t so much dig into that moment as it notes it in passing, when Robert Kennedy was managing his brother’s campaign.
Beyond this, the film focuses on Ethel’s managing of her family’s life at the same time. While she and the other “Kennedy women” worked on a series of Senate and presidential campaigns, they were also busy being homemakers. Here Rory’s siblings recount their mother’s efforts, her insistence that the kids be surrounded by animals (“We had 15 dogs when we were growing up,” in addition to a seal and ponies they would ride over to the CIA every morning), her lack of skills in the kitchen (“She cooked bananas,” sums up Bobby Jr., “That was not why daddy married her’”) or her notoriously competitive nature (“Most parents let their children win,” Bobby notes, “That wasn’t part of her parenting philosophy”).
As Kathleen recalls, “Mummy thought it was really important that we knew what daddy was up to,” and so she took them along to the 1957 Senate hearings on labor rackets (the McClellan Committee hearings). Kathleen suggests she learned to talk by mimicking the words, “I refuse to answer on the ground it may tend to incriminate me,” and recalls that Ethel had to pick them up from school, as some unsavory characters threatened the family. The film cuts to a TV interview from the time, as Ethel assesses her husband’s performance. “I’m surprised when he really keeps his temper,” she nods, “I think it’s amazing that he does so well.”
When Rory asks her mother to comment on a “cute shot of you trying to speak Japanese” during one of many trips she took with and without Bobby, Ethel blanches. “That wasn’t so cute,” she says, “that was ego-destroying.” The footage suggests that she’s struggling and yet good-humored, and looking back with her, you might imagine how difficult it was to maintain her public self. Playing the good wife and the incredible mother of 11 children (“You were pregnant for 99 months out of your life,” Rory points out), Ethel Kennedy is best remembered as a public figure standing behind her husband, as the poster for this film suggests. But as her children here insist, her role was anything but secondary or even overshadowed by their famous, much revered father. As Kerry puts it, the kids’ sense of responsibility comes from Ethel, that she raised them after their father’s death, that she imbued in them a feeling that their great privilege was not a “free ride.” This even as Ethel shakes her head: “I just don’t feel I can take the credit,” she says.
The film notes the many traumas she endured, the loss of her “conservative Republican” parents in a plane crash, her brother-in-law and her husband’s murders, the loss of sons to a drug overdose and a skiing accident. But it follows her lead in not probing these tragedies or her feelings about them. Again and again, Ethel insists she doesn’t like to “talk about” her self, doesn’t like to be introspective. And so the film offers images for the rest of us to parse, public performances that may or may not reveal what we want to see.