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Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates, The (Blu-ray Review)

11 Apr, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Street 4/26/16
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.

The four JFK-oriented documentaries here are Primary, Adventures on the New Frontier, Crisis and Faces of November — the second and fourth new to me, while Primary and Crisis are long-time favorites I revisit every so often. Every time I see the latter duo, I’m struck by how increasingly fresh and modern they look to the contemporary eye. Not to put too fine a point on things with an otherwise outrageous comparison, but Primary (1960) seems fresh and groundbreaking in a way that the same year’s Psycho did — then and now.

It’s a brilliant idea packaging this foursome into a single unit — a brainstorm that never would have occurred to me, even if it does seem obvious now that Criterion has gone and done it. What’s more, this is one of those home releases where you just have to take the mammothly rewarded time to watch all the bonus features, which are the equivalent of a couple stuffed Christmas stockings. In addition to still-gripping background material on how the once unlikely Kennedy presidency came to be, there’s a lot of interview footage with the late Robert Drew himself about how he and the future legends who became his key associates (Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles) basically all-out invented a new form that puzzled even a lot of those in the documentary profession. Ground rules included  “direction” of the filmed principals, no lighting of them, no retakes and so on, with newly portable equipment (though not nearly as portable as today’s) allowing easier access to filming locales, which eventually included the White House. This last precipitated a New York Times editorial (something I didn’t know before looking at the extras here) that conveyed the paper’s offense over the prospect of someone using the White House as a movie set. Well, the times were a-changing even before Bob Dylan caught on, and the paper couldn’t have been too wild about being scooped, either.

Primary — fairly topical now, wouldn’t you say? — finds Kennedy and Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey (then often referred to as Wisconsin’s third senator) competing for local support in one of the bleaker Badger State winters made up of voters and slush. Humphrey tries to portray his Massachusetts colleague as a callow upstart who, like most of Washington, doesn’t care a whit about the farmer (Humphrey’s natural constituency, though he was a progressive). Kennedy is more urbane and polished — and smart enough to bring along wife Jackie to campaign because East Coast glamour (if genuine) has no statutory boundaries when it comes to appeal. Drew was looking for the right subject with which he could re-invent the form, and Kennedy was quickly forthcoming with an OK (can you ever imagine Nixon doing this?) because he had a love for history. Humphrey didn’t even have to mull it over because he was naturally garrulous, sometimes to a fault.

There’s an overhead moving shot here of Kennedy entering a hall of Wisconsin well-wishers that’s among the most famous in documentary history, and Kennedy was so impressed with the finished product that he gave permission for the Drew crew to camp out in the White House to make Adventures in the New Frontier, a chronicle of the sometimes (or at least relatively) banal chores a president has to go through and filmed very early in the Kennedy presidency. Has an ambassador just made a verbal gaffe when making a speech to and about his appointed country? Will the chef exec be able to get enough autographed glossies signed as favors for the seemingly countless Kennedy sisters who’ve invaded the premises? Though a charming scene, signature scrawling probably wasn’t as much fun as hanging out with the Rat Pack.

Crisis is an all-timer: a nail-biter about the confrontation between JFK and Attorney General/brother Robert (back in DC), Deputy A.G. Nicholas Katzenbach (who was on the scene) and Alabama Gov. George Wallace over Wallace’s refusal to let two black students (Vivian Malone, James Hood) act upon their admissions to the state university. It’s fascinating to watch the Kennedy brothers, decades before cell phones, having to rely on radio reports to learn how the confrontation was going (Wallace, who apologized for his actions late in his life, was literally standing at the statehouse door). And from appearances, it looks as if the AM reception wasn’t all that great — akin to what it was like in the unlamented old days when one tried to listen to a ballgame broadcast from another state.

Faces of November runs just twelve minutes but has enough heartbreak for a three-hour roadshow epic: a portrait of JFK’s funeral (and the prep leading up to it) on the kind of day where the weather was about as uninviting as you’d figure for saying goodbye to a slain popular president. This is a prime filmic example of how less really can be more, and (among many other things) it’ll make you see Kennedy’s then brother-in-law Peter Lawford in a new light as he’s seen trying to comfort a child.

As mentioned, Criterion goes wild on the extras. Historian Cohen, whose Two Days in June chronicled the event, is illuminating on the Alabama standoff over outtakes from Crisis that include a graduation speech to young Catholic women about their futures that was an eternity ahead of its time. Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves offers a terrific backgrounder on JFK’s political life that hilariously juxtaposes the Kennedy and Nixon 1946 campaign posters for the House — instant insight into why one was a candidate for the cement-arteries demographic and the other was embraced by collective youth. Vivian Malone is deceased, but here’s her younger sister (with husband) putting the pioneer’s life into full perspective, and the husband turns out to be … former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder. Pennebaker gets his own interview, Leacock (now deceased) gets his own interview, and Drew himself tells his story from an assemblage of archival footage — both in black-and-white and color footage that reflects a dramatic change in his appearance over the years. A 1998 panel discussion includes all three (plus Maysles, also now deceased), and the accompanying essay by film curator/writer Thom Powers is, as Donald Trump claims about himself, packin’.

I’m always a little leery of touting 10-best potential when it’s so early in the year, but it’s hard to believe that this release won’t be a fixture on best lists. I wish Criterion could figure out how to do something on Watergate, though the Sam Ervin Senate hearings or the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings would be quite a place to start.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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