Published May 04, 2012Noting that director Rory Kennedy is the youngest daughter of documentary subject Ethel Kennedy, whose identity in the public eye is mostly that of being Robert Kennedy's wife, there are a couple of ways to interpret the material. One perspective is that her unobstructed access to the necessary interview subjects and personal experience aid the film through sheer comprehensiveness, ensuring that all possible avenues are explored for full dramatic effect. On the other hand, her closeness to the subject also brings substantial bias, making for more of an insular hagiography than a balanced documentary.
Acknowledging this slant, it's easier to appreciate this loving testament to a woman that supported her husband and raised their 11 children after his assassination in 1968. As mentioned early on by the many sarcastic siblings interviewed, the goal is for the world to know Ethel as more than just the wife of a Democratic Senator and civil rights activist, making this work one of appreciation more so than analysis.
Beyond the aforementioned heartbreaking elements of the film, which is ostensibly a linear retelling of the relationship and marriage of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, as contextualized by the historical facts that shaped them, this professionally crafted and surprisingly engaging documentary has a candour and sense of humour that serve it well. Since the interview subjects are the siblings of Rory, obviously shaped by their free-spirited and exceedingly affable mother, the sarcasm and anecdotal framework give us a sense of involvement with the family that makes the eventual tragedy that much more profound.
The siblings discuss their father's sense of propriety in relation to their mother's irreverence, being arrested for speeding and stealing a starving horse from a neighbour, in a way that manages to create a viable love story out of found footage, photographs and voiceovers. It also doesn't hurt that Ethel is hilarious and often makes a humble joke out of being the subject of a feature documentary.
It's this mixture of historical factoids tethered by a genuine emotional core that manages to warm the heart while relating the experiences of one family to a nation that watched them through the good and bad. Beyond being a moving piece, communicating the sincere feelings a daughter has for her mother, this film works as an emotional journey unto itself, generating laughter and tears without undue manipulation. (HBO)