Judge Ben Saylor tried to film in the Oval Office; that's why he's writing this review from a prison cell.
Our review of Primary, published June 1st, 2004, is also available.
"A new kind of reporting, a new kind of history."—Robert Drew
In April 1960, TimeLife Broadcast staff member Robert Drew, with a small crew including future documentary filmmakers Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter), Richard Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back), embarked upon a landmark project in film history. Using then-innovative lightweight cameras and sound equipment that allowed for incredible mobility, Drew and his team documented, over a period of five hectic days, the Democratic primary race in Wisconsin that pitted Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy against Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. The result was Primary, an intimate portrait of two very different politicians competing in a crucial race.
After screening Primary for Kennedy, the young President asked Drew what he wanted to do next. Drew replied that he wanted to capture the president on film as he dealt with a crisis facing the country. This led to the creation of the 1963 film Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, which skillfully weaves together a portrait of Kennedy and his attorney general brother Bobby as they try to figure out how to enroll two black students to the University of Alabama, where the state's segregationist governor, George Wallace, has vowed to block the students from attending the school. Previously released on DVD in 2003, Docurama has packaged Crisis and Primary together as The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection.
For a 53-minute film, while Primary certainly doesn't encapsulate the entire primary/campaign experience (as Judge Bill Gibron points out in his excellent review of the film), it nonetheless manages to do a lot within its scant runtime. What I like about Primary is that it combines large moments with smaller ones. There are events like Humphrey addressing a group of farmers and Kennedy giving a speech to urban supporters (prefaced by a terrific tracking following Kennedy through the crowd and onto the stage), but there are also things like Jackie Kennedy's hands, her fingers nervously moving back and forth as she addresses a massive crowd. Another nice small moment is Humphrey dozing in a car as he travels to his next campaign stop.
We also get to see both candidates interact with people on the street, and these scenes are rather telling in terms of the difference in the candidates. The people Humphrey encounters are generally older and calmer, while Kennedy draws a decidedly younger (and largely female) crowd of excited, cheering supporters for whom he gladly signs autographs.
Primary also catches the candidates on the move; because Drew and his team's equipment was portable and lightweight, the filmmakers were able to follow the candidates wherever they went. What's incredible is that the filmmakers were able to get nicely framed shots from a variety of angles, even within confined spaces such as a bus Humphrey and his team travel on.
All in all, while Primary isn't a perfect movie (Judge Gibron is right that the scenes of waiting for the returns aren't the best in the film), it is a very good one that serves as a great example of the direct cinema movement in film, and is also an essential portrait of two prominent American political figures.
Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment uses the same unobtrusive, direct cinema approach of Primary but applies it to a much different situation. Kennedy is now president, and the film is about his administration's strategy for getting students Vivian Malone and James Hood safely into the University of Alabama. Here, the chief innovation is using multiple camera crews filming at different locations such as Bobby Kennedy's office and his deputy Nicholas Katzenbach's command center in Alabama.
By cutting these sequences from different geographical locations together, Drew creates a multi-faceted narrative that shows all sides of the situation. We see Kennedy talking strategy in the Oval Office, with intense close-ups showing the president's sobering, contemplative stare as he ponders the task at hand. We see Bobby at work in his office, working the phone(s) to get information on what is happening in Alabama. We see Wallace in the governor's mansion and also tossing a ball with a kid in the street. We see Malone and Hood interacting with one another, and Malone as she prepares for a Time magazine shoot. And in one of the film's most memorable moments, we see Bobby's young daughter, Kerry, talking on the phone to good sport Katzenbach. In short, the film is incredibly comprehensive, especially considering its 53-minute runtime.
Something else that makes Crisis different from Primary is that John F. Kennedy is more of a minor figure in the former film. Beyond the sequences in the Oval Office, we don't see much of the President; most of Crisis is concerned with Bobby and his staff's efforts to outmaneuver Wallace. As with Primary, the amount of access the filmmakers have to their subjects in Crisis is staggering; we get to follow Bobby walk up the path to right outside the Oval Office doors, and sit with the President and his advisors in the Oval Office itself.
Unfortunately, Docurama's DVD presentations of Primary and Crisis are identical to the 2003 releases of these films. The transfers for both films aren't the best, and the transfer for Primary especially is quite bad, with lots of problems with both the image and the sound, which is not always in sync. I realize that the cameras and sound equipment used by Drew and his men were rather primitive, but Docurama really could have done a better job cleaning these up. And in a rather tacky move, the Robert Drew logo (his initials) is burned onto every frame of each film. No subtitles are included for either film.
Extras on both discs are also the same as the 2003 releases. On Primary, there is a feature commentary with Drew and Leacock. While Drew seems to be a reluctant participant at first, he and Leacock both end up providing a steady dialogue, discussing how they made the film, what their own political opinions were at the time and other interesting topics. Also included is a featurette called "The Originators: Recalling the Primary Breakthrough," which is a 27-minute panel discussion from 2000 featuring Drew, Leacock, Pennebaker, and Maysles talking about the film. There is also a 15-minute featurette called "30/15: 30 Years of Robert Drew Filmmaking," which shows clips of various Drew films. No narration or any kind of title cards is provided to identify the films, so this featurette isn't very good. The disc is rounded out by a text-only bio of Drew and a filmmaker statement, as well as a Docurama catalog, with trailers for some titles. (All of which are included on the Crisis disc as well.)
On the Crisis disc, Drew and Leacock turn up for another commentary. Like, Primary, the two are very informative, but there are more gaps in the discussion than there are on the other disc. In addition, the short film "Faces of November" is included. "Faces," which was recorded on Nov. 22, 1963, documents President Kennedy's funeral procession, and includes shots of the Capitol, the Washington Memorial and several of the countless mourners who came out to pay their respects to the slain leader. Simple but undeniably powerful, "Faces of November" is a well put together film.
Given the fact that the only thing new about this release is the cardboard case that holds both films, if you already have these DVDs, there's no reason to get this set. If you don't have them, however, or just have one of them, the set is a pretty good deal (listed at $21.99 on Amazon, which is how they price Primary and Crisis individually). Some viewers however, may want to wait and see if a remastered version of these films is ever released. Even with the bad transfers, however, Primary and Crisis are must-see films for anyone interested in documentaries.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice, Primary
Perp Profile, Primary
Distinguishing Marks, Primary
• Feature commentary with filmmakers Robert Drew and Richard Leacock
Scales of Justice, Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment
Perp Profile, Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment
Distinguishing Marks, Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment
• Short film "Faces of November"
Review content copyright © 2008 Ben Saylor; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.