This year has been an incredible year of release for The Criterion Collection, and we’re just getting through April. Classic Hollywood, foreign gems, loaded releases of modern milestones, and a couple of documentaries: it’s been a diverse line-up, and it shows that Criterion’s well has not run dry in the slightest. And though I didn’t anticipate this when it was announced, one of the best releases of the year is The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates, a compilation of four JFK documentaries Robert Drew and his crew created in the early 1960s.
These are four remarkable films for various reasons. First, they have inherent historical value, of course. These are not retrospectives but rather were shot, edited, and aired at the time of the events they were documenting. So, in Primary, we get Senator Kennedy and Senator Humphrey battling for votes in Wisconsin, each attending events, greeting the people, and finally hearing that Kennedy won the primary.
In Adventures in the New Frontier, we see Kennedy settling into his new position. In Crisis, we see two sides of the conflict between Kennedy (and his brother Robert, the deputy attorney general) and the fiery Alabama Governor George C. Wallace as they battle about civil rights. Finally, in Faces of November, we see a poetic, wordless funeral procession.
But American presidential history is not the reason I enjoyed these films so much. These films are still strong examples of what was then an entirely new style of film-making, by the trailblazing Robert Drew and his associates, the great documentary filmmakers Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Richard Leacock. This crew, using portable 16mm cameras and smaller microphones, got incredibly close to their subjects. One famous shout from Primary follows Kennedy as he walks from backstage out to meet a crowd of supporters singing Kennedy’s campaign version of “High Hopes”:
Everyone is voting for Jack
Cause he’s got what all the rest lack
Everyone wants to back . . . Jack
Jack is on the right track.
‘Cause he’s got high hopes
He’s got high hopes
Nineteen Sixty’s the year for his high hopes.
Come on and vote for Kennedy
Vote for Kennedy
And we’ll come out on top!
Oops, there goes the opposition — ker —
Oops, there goes the opposition — ker —
Oopse there goes the opposition — KERPLOP!
While the crowd sings, the camera stays about a foot above and behind Kennedy’s head, making one wonder just how the crew got this access, but also giving a completely unique perspective on a live event that candidates had not given before and that most would not give today. We stand behind Jackie Kennedy and get a close up of her nervous hands fidgeting behind her back.
It’s closer than most people would care for, but the Kennedys come off well, so well, in fact, that Kennedy invited Robert Drew to come back and do a couple more documentaries. Adventures on the New Frontier and Crisis are still immediate and close, but it’s obvious that both the Kennedys and the filmmakers were getting comfortable and were, thus, able to utilize the medium for their message. Rhetorical imperative didn’t come off in Primary, making it the most unique and, to my eyes, freshest of the films. That said, it’s still fantastic to see how the crew and the subjects recognize the power they hold in their hands.
The Criterion Collection edition: This is one of the best Criterion releases of an already amazing year. But this is a case where its the supplements that really push it over the line and make the whole package amazing. This is a jam-packed disc, covering, well, everything I could think of related to these films: President Kennedy, the documentary techniques, the careers of the filmmakers’, and even current reflections on civil rights.
- Primary comes in two versions, the original 53-minute version and, edited down in hopes that a television network would pick it up, a 26-minute version called The Leacock Version. I prefer the longer cut, personally, though the Leacock version does include enough information that it hardly feel deficient. I just preferred seeing more of the surroundings, more of the waiting, more of the ticks.
- Primary also gets an audio commentary track that features a 1961 conversation between Drew, Pennebaker, and Leacock, as well as film critic Gideon Bachmann. This is not a “commentary” as we normally understand that term; rather, this is a conversation about the filmmaking techniques that doesn’t need to be played over Primary as they’re not really responding to anything on the screen.
- Robert Drew in His Own Words: This is a nicely compiled, 34:12-minute documentary on Robert Drew’s career, told in interview excerpts. He goes over some of his philosophies on documentary filmmaking that we heard in the audio commentary above: don’t interfere, don’t lecture.
- Jill Drew and D.A. Pennebaker: This is a current 26:22-minute conversation between Jill Drew, Robert Drew’s daughter-in-law and general manager of Drew Associates, and Pennebaker. This is a great feature in which Pennebaker talks about how they accomplished some of the shots, how it was to work with Kennedy, and how they edited the documentaries together.
- Andrew Cohen on Crisis and Its Outtakes: This 46:23-minute supplement in which Andrew Cohen talks much more about the civil rights conflict featured in Crisis, during which Governor Wallace would not allow two black students to enter the University of Alabama, promising to block them personally. It’s a strong supplement because it also includes outtakes from the film itself, which give us even more detail while showing us how the crew didn’t just film and include any such thing. Though they were looking for authenticity and non-interference, that’s hard to maintain in the editing room.
- Sharon Malone and Eric Holder: This surprising 26:15-minute conversation between Sharon Malone (sister to Vivian Malone, one of the black students Governor Wallace promised to block from the university) and her husband, the former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Malone was only a few years old when all of this happened, so her recollection is very personal and haunted, like a child who can sense something terrible but doesn’t quite comprehend it. She talks a lot about her sister’s attitude toward the whole thing, including the threats she received afterward. For his part, Holder talks about Vivian Malone as well, but his input is even better when he talks about what it’s like to be the Attorney General and discusses Robert Kennedy’s job as shown in this film. This is a supplement to remember when voting for supplement of the year.
- Richard Reeves: In a 27:12-minute conversation, historian Richard Reeves talks about the Kennedy administration in its broader context, giving us even more insights into the time period this set covers.
- Drew Associates at the Museum of Tolerance: When the films were restored, they premiered at the Museum of Tolerance. The crew — Drew, Pennebaker, Maysles, and Leacock — were in attendance. This 26:41-minute supplement is a compilation of interview excerpts and then moves to excerpts from a panel discussion. While they are talking about many of the things we’ve heard on other supplements — their technique, their philosophy — this is still an insightful feature because they give more reasoning and offer more stories.
- The disc also comes with a booklet (that’s right — staples and everything!) featuring an essay, “Capturing the Kennedys,” by Thom Powers. From the start, Powers doesn’t hold back on how revolutionary this crew and their films were: “The foursome who came together for Primary in 1960 are like the Beatles of documentary.”