Now, five years on, Docudrama Films has re-packaged these DVDs in one two-disc box set entitled The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection, presumably to capitalize on the political fervor engendered by the 2008 general election. Those hoping that the films have been restored and the DVDs re-mastered will be sorely disappointed. Unfortunately, the only thing new here is the cardboard case.
If you're wondering who Robert Drew is, and why he gets top billing over Kennedy, he's the director, executive producer, editor, writer, creator, and owner of these films. Drew was instrumental in creating a camera with synchronized sound equipment light enough and quiet enough to permit a two-person film crew to document events wherever they occurred. To take advantage of the new equipment, Drew created Primary (53 min.), which is regarded as the first American Direct Cinema documentary. Primary captured the feel of a campaign in ways viewers had never experienced before. Two-man camera crews traveled with the candidates throughout the primary in Wisconsin recording them as they gave speeches, campaigned on the street, traveled from stop to stop, awaited the primary results, and spun those results to reporters.
To be properly appreciated now, Primary should be viewed in the context of its time. By present standards, Primary is burdened with a stridently emphatic narration that badly dates the film, technical difficulties that leave much of the sound out of sync with the image, and a decided lack of drama: on camera, the candidates neither interact with each other, nor with their campaign staffs or families. What we see is simply the candidates on the campaign trail, and little else. While this may be enough to satisfy people especially enamored with JFK's legacy, what makes Primary so fascinating for fans of documentary film is its technical innovation. When the camera crew follows directly behind Kennedy as he makes his way through a crowd of supporters to the podium, it's a breathtaking documentary first for what is now commonplace. When the camera tracks a beautiful young woman as she slyly gives Kennedy a flirtatious wink as they shake hands, that's a documentary first too, as is the sight of the Lt. Governor choosing to nap rather than converse with presidential candidate Senator Humphrey during a 30-minute car trip between campaign stops.
Undoubtedly one of the reasons for this re-release of Primary is the uncanny similarities between the 1960 Kennedy-Humphrey primary race and the 2008 Obama-McCain general race. Much like Obama now, Kennedy then was a charismatic, young, relatively-inexperienced junior senator drawing strong support from urban voters. And, much like McCain is now, Humphrey was a gruff, old, seasoned senior senator drawing his strongest support among suburban and rural voters. Though there are also obvious differences (e.g., Humphrey was politically to the left of Kennedy, while McCain is to the right of Obama), the sense of déjà vu is palpable when a Humphrey supporter denigrates Kennedy for his youth, inexperience and celebrity status.
John F. Kennedy was nearly as pleased with how Primary turned out as he was with how the general election did. Consequently, he agreed in theory to allow Drew to make another film documenting how his administration responded to a crisis. However because international crises were considered too sensitive, the first situation considered suitable didn't occur until June, 1963 when Governor George Wallace refused to comply with a federal court order requiring the racial integration of the University of Alabama. President Kennedy tasked his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy with enforcing the court's desegregation order.
Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (53 min.) is an order of magnitude superior to Primary in drama and technical quality. Crisis was shot with camera crews following Attorney General Robert Kennedy in Washington D.C., as well as Deputy A.G. Nicholas Katzenbach in Alabama, and even Governor Wallace, as they planned and executed their strategies. The sound synchronization problems that left Drew trying to match image with sound in post-production on Primary had been resolved, and even the low-light film stock looked to be much improved over that available three years earlier for Primary. The level of behind the scenes access given by the Kennedy Administration to Drew's camera crews for Crisis has never been matched since. Truly, the promise of Direct Cinema suggested by Primary was fulfilled by Crisis.
Rounding out the Drew documentaries in this set is the 11-minute short Faces of November documenting the outpouring of grief following the assassination of President Kennedy. Recorded on Sunday 22, 1963, this short was filmed in and around the Capitol Rotunda where the President's body lay in state. Opened to the public following a short ceremony with the Kennedy family, nearly 250,000 people passed through the Capitol to pay their respects between 9 AM on Sunday and 9 AM the following day. Faces of November is all the more powerful for its lack of narration.
Two other featurettes originally made for the 2003 DVD release of Primary are The Originators: Recalling the Primary Breakthrough, a 27-minute panel discussion with Robert Drew, and photographers Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles about their work on Primary recorded in 2000 at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Idaho, and 30/15: 30 Years of Robert Drew Filmmaking in 15 Minutes which features brief excerpts from Drew's numerous documentaries without narration.
Here's hoping for something better in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK's passing.