The tenets of the cinéma vérité (or direct cinema) movement have become such a common part of the documentary vernacular (as well as that of its bastard cousin, the reality TV show) that it is easy to forget how revolutionary the original vérité filmmakers were. Moviemakers like Robert Drew, Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Salesman), and D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop) changed the very language of the documentary film, which was previously comprised of talking heads and stock footage and very little else. With the development of the lightweight, hand-held, sync-sound 16mm camera (and matching lightweight audio recording devices), and their choice to appropriate a "fly-on-the-wall" approach to their subjects (eschewing interviews, asking no questions, minimizing or eliminating narration), Drew and his associates created a new form of film.
The three innovators mentioned above (along with cinematographer Richard Leacock) all collaborated on the 1960 film Primary, which most cinephiles regard as the first American cinéma vérité doc. Director Drew and photographers Leacock and Pennebaker reunited three years later for Crisis. Both films profiled President John F. Kennedy, and both were previously released by Docurama in 2003. This election year, the two discs have been bundled as "The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection," presumably due to the abundant comparisons of this year's Presidential race to the 1960 contest that put JFK into the White House. These are the same discs as were released individually five years ago, so there's no need to buy them again if you already own them. But for fresh eyes, they offer a unique peek at political and film history.
In the memory of most (and certainly on the packaging of the disc), Primary is regarded as a profile of JFK on the campaign trail. In fact, the film's 53 minutes are fairly well-split between Kennedy and his rival for the Democratic nomination, Midwestern populist Hubert Humphrey. Drew and his crew spend about a week with the candidates as they campaign in Wisconsin, hoping to win that state's impending primary.
You can, in places, feel that the filmmakers are still getting the hang of this new kind of journalism. But there is a low-key intimacy to Primary that is still remarkable, even after all of these years of imitation. We see (seemingly) unguarded views of the candidates glad-handing, hand-shaking, and signing autographs, and (via the hand-held camera) we follow them to photo shoots, TV shows, and public appearances (including a famous shot that seems right on Kennedy's shoulder as he goes from the sidewalk, through a mob, and onto a rally stage).
There's also plenty of time in caravans, as the candidates gaze out of back-seat windows, exhausted from the ordeal of literally asking for one vote at a time. Above its achievements as documentary (and they are many), Primary may be the film that best captures both the hard work and considerable tedium of a primary campaign (though Pennebaker's The War Room, over 30 years later, does a pretty damn fine job as well). It really does feel like we are there, in those rooms and in those cars and at those rallies with Kennedy and Humphrey, and how close they got to the real men, we may never know. But it feels mighty honest.
Having earned the trust of the Kennedys, Drew and his crew were given the opportunity to shoot a follow-up documentary in the Kennedy White House. Crisis (sometimes referred to by its full title, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment) covers 30 hours in which Kennedy has to make major decisions about the degree to which he will involve himself in the civil rights movement. Specifically, Alabama governor George Wallace has threatened to personally block the doors of the University of Alabama to prevent the entrance of two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood.
Drew and his crews are, seemingly, everywhere--with Attorney General Robert Kennedy as he manages the situation; in Alabama, with both Wallace and his staff and with Malone, Hood, and RFK's man on the ground, deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach; and, most remarkably, inside the walls of the Oval Office, as the Kennedy brothers and their staff of advisors try to come up with a solution that will satisfy all parties.
The intimacy and access here is astonishing; try to imagine this kind of transparency in, say, the current administration. As a result, Crisis is even more engrossing than Primary--the stakes are higher, the strategies are more complex, and the inter-cutting of the multiple crews at multiple locations creates a momentum and suspense in the storytelling. Quiet but intense, Crisis is a fascinating examination of how a group of smart people put their heads together to deal with a serious problem.
The high intellectual quality of the films is the good news. The low aesthetic quality is the bad news. In all fairness to Docurama, these source materials were probably in pretty rough shape, as most forty-plus year old 16mm films are, and the mobility of the format is what made them possible, so who are we to complain (though, that said, Criterion managed to clean up their Maysles Brothers films, shot with similar equipment, pretty impressively). So the full-frame image is a little beat up, with plenty of dirt and grain and the occasional hair in the gate; both films are in about the same condition, though Crisis has less wear-and-tear than the older Primary. However, it should be noted that while the condition of the original materials was probably out of Docurama's control, the decision to burn an irritating "RD" (for "Robert Drew") logo into the lower right corner of all the content was not. It's a real distraction.
The 2.0 stereo mix suffers from the same issues; the original material was simply not intended for your surround receiver. Since the audio was recorded on-the-fly with a minimum of boom microphones, the mix gets a little muddy at times, though important dialogue is usually fairly clear.
Docurama and Richard Drew Associates have put together a solid collection of bonus features for these discs. First of all, both films feature audio commentaries by Drew and cinematographer Richard Leacock. The commentaries are a bit of a mixed bag, occasionally lad-back and insightful (though some of the material is repeated in other extras or the other commentary), sometimes counterintuitive (Drew seems to dislike the idea of talking over his work), periodically victim to long pauses and narration instead of insight. The commentaries aren't bad, but most of the worthwhile information can be heard elsewhere in the bonus features.
The bulk of the additional extras are on the Primary disc. First we have "The Originators: Recalling the Primary Breakthrough" (27:02), which begins with a 1962 interview where Drew explains the direct cinema idea and how he arrived at it, before shuttling ahead nearly 30 years to a 2000 panel discussion of the film. Drew heads up the panel, which also includes Leacock, Maysles, and Pennebaker, and while some of the editing is a little strange, it is a very interesting opportunity to hear these four fine filmmakers reflect on the form and the film that put it on the map. Well worth a listen.
Next up is the less-essential "30/15: 30 Years of Robert Drew Filmmaking" (15:47). This featurette basically consists of fifteen minutes of clips from Drew's films, along with some re-used footage of the 1962 interview seen in "The Originators." It's mildly interesting, but (for unknown reasons) there are no title graphics accompanying the clips, so we have no idea what films we're looking at.
The Primary disc is rounded out with text profiles of Drew and Docurama films, along with an interactive catalog of their other releases (with some trailers). These are also included on the Crisis disc.
Crisis includes the set's best bonus, the short film "Faces of November" (11:54), released in 1964 (the box--rather misleadingly--identifies this as a third film, but its abbreviated length should classify it as an extra). "Faces" has no spoken words and no score, only the natural sounds at Kennedy's funeral. The camera simply records the events, studying the grief-stricken expressions of family and strangers. In this astonishingly simple but effective approach, "Faces" evokes the mood of a nation in mourning, primarily by merely regarding the faces of Americans. Powerful, understated, and very moving.
Drew and his cohort created nothing less than a revolution in American cinema, and there is no better place to examine the fruits of their labor than the Kennedy films. The run-and-gun origins of the material may make for a less-than-satisfactory audio/visual experience, but few (if any) documentaries would be considered showcase discs anyway. For students of politics (and film) who don't mind an image and sound that's a little rough around the edges, these films are a must-see. Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.