Saturday, 30 April 2016

THE KENNEDY FILMS OF ROBERT DREW & ASSOCIATES - BluRay Review By Greg Klymkiw Criterion Collection presents one of its finest and perhaps most important releases!

President John F. Kennedy in CRISIS
The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates (1960) (1963) (1964) (2015)
Dir. Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker
Featuring: John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy,
Hubert H. Humphrey, George Wallace, Jacqueline Kennedy

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Robert Drew told true stories in pictures - moving pictures so vibrant that they placed you directly in the eye of the storm - and as such, changed documentary cinema in America forever (and frankly, for the better).

Visionary filmmakers, however, need delivery methods of equal vision.

The visionary Criterion Collection continues to dazzle us with one important release after another. There is, however, something especially noteworthy about The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates. In our current year of American presidential primaries, upcoming election and some of the most horrific strife in the country's history, the astonishing films collected in this package provide a window into the history of similar events which occurred over fifty years ago. As well as giving us a historical mirror by which to assess current events, the entire BluRay/DVD sheds light upon the aesthetic ground broken in the area of Direct Cinema (or, if you will, Cinema Vérité).

In the 50s, Robert Drew, a former Life Magazine correspondent, decided to turn his quest for truth in journalism away from the still image to the moving image. Not satisfied with the standards of television journalism at the time, which relied too heavily upon commentating (narration) over every image and/or straight-up interviews, Drew became a man obsessed with creating documentary cinema in which the audience could feel like they were with the subjects themselves.

Some of Drew's best work were his Kennedy films. Armed with a team of filmmakers (Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker) who would all go on to create their own individual work in later years, Drew captured four key moments in the life of America's greatest leader, John F. Kennedy.

The first film in this series was Primary. Drew was fascinated with the young Senator John F. Kennedy, a man who, at the time, appeared to have no chance to win the Democratic nomination. In addition to his youth, he was Catholic, filthy rich and from the "east" - certainly not presidential material to win the hearts and minds of America's heartland.

Drew approached Kennedy with his idea of following the Wisconsin primaries with a team of cameras. He assured Kennedy that he was in the business of breaking new aesthetic ground; that he wanted his cameras to be up close and personal, as if the cameras weren't even there. Kennedy understood the historical significance of this, but maybe more importantly, he tuned in to the artistic importance of Drew's approach. Kennedy even knew the film might be completed in time to assist in his election efforts and yet, this meant very little to him. The film was everything.

The resulting work, especially when one compares it to the ludicrous coverage we've been assailed with in the past year involving the respective Democratic and Republican primaries of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, Primary is an unparalleled look at the process of seeking nomination in America.

What's especially interesting is seeing Kennedy and his chief Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey operating almost solely on a grassroots level. Seeing the juxtaposition of Humphrey cracking corny jokes to meagre assemblies of grim-faced farmers and Kennedy surrounded by throngs of admiring babes is not only hilariously telling, but prescient beyond words. The film and the campaigns it captures are truly the definition of "up close and personal".

Once Kennedy won the nomination and his eventual election was in the bag, Drew visited JFK again, and again he convinced the Great Man about the historical and aesthetic importance of capturing the first days in office. Kennedy agreed and Drew had unprecedented access to inside the White House. Adventures on the New Frontier is (at least to my recollection on the matter), the only film to be plopped so intimately into the Oval Office as a President acquaints himself with the new job.

One of the coolest moments occurs early on when JFK meets his Joint Chief of Staffs for the FIRST TIME. The camera follows the events right from the pleasantries and on to some fairly sensitive discussions. One of the stern generals points to the cameras and JFK turns and realizes, with that winning smile, that perhaps it's best if the cameras leave the Oval Office for the rest of the meeting.

After this film, Drew wanted to capture the President in a moment of crisis. Alas, the crisis could not involve other countries for reasons of national security. No matter, Crisis would be made eventually, and when it was, it dealt with a crisis on American soil - a racist Governor defying the Federal Government.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy Battles
Racist Idiot Alabama Governor George Wallace
who plans to physically stop two black students
from registering at the University of Alabama.
Given the current disgrace of racism in the "justice" system of America (and the country overall), this is a film that might prove to be one of the most important of Drew's Kennedy films. Alabama was the last state to allow full racial integration in its universities. JFK was having none of this and via a court order issued by his brother Robert Kennedy, America's Attorney General, Alabama had no choice but to open its doors to Black university students.

The Kennedy boys, however, had a formidable adversary in the rabidly racist Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. The plucky, nasty Black-hating psychopath had it all figured out. Accompanied by Alabama's National Guard, Wallace himself planned to defy the court order, march over to the University of Alabama and stand in the doors leading to the registrar's office to physically block the university's first pair of Black students from entering.

What transpires over the course of the film's running time is as suspenseful as any political thriller (especially since we're privy to the plan to have the Alabama Guard pledge allegiance to the Federal Government). That Drew and his team had the access they did (including the permission of Wallace himself) seems impossible, fictional even. There's plenty of drama, alright, but none of it is fiction. Crisis brings us into the thick of a showdown right out of the Old West, or rather, the antebellum South.

Again, with a great team and unprecedented access to the players, Drew masterfully orchestrates the genuine conflict in the story, but he also provides a window into the characters of RFK (who takes the driver's seat) and Wallace via some clever juxtaposition. On one hand, the cameras follow young Robert Kennedy at home on the morning of the confrontation. We feel like we're in a real home - warm, congenial, a Dad and his kids, a yummy breakfast being served up and sun streaming through the windows. At the very same time, over at George Wallace's Alabammy mansion, built on the backs of slaves, we see a cold, spotless home adorned with Southern Civil War paraphernalia. Even more appalling is seeing Wallace kibitz with a group of Black prisoners from a nearby prison who have been enlisted to work as labourers on the grounds of the Governor's mansion.

This is truly the stuff of great motion picture drama.

ROBERT DREW (1924 - 2014)
Drew's final Kennedy film is a heartbreaker. Faces of November focuses on those who have come to mourn JFK on the day of his funeral. The title says it all. The "faces" tell the whole story of an event so sad and shocking that very few people in the world weren't glued to their radios and televisions. At the age of four, my own memories of the news of the assassination and the subsequent funeral, are still vivid and haunting. Drew's film allowed me, some 53 years later, an opportunity to share my memories - of my grief as a child (as a Canadian I had no idea who the Canadian Prime Minister was and thought Kennedy was our leader), the grief of my mother (who was weeping for days) and now, at this point in time, to share the grief with a myriad of faces, all tear-stained and shell shocked by one of the saddest and most shameful events in America's history.

If the Criterion Collection release was only the gorgeously restored and transferred films themselves, it would be enough. That the package includes what might be the best supplements I have ever experienced on any home entertainment release is yet another reason to applaud a visionary company's commitment to capturing visionary films with equally visionary documentary and interview footage. This includes the brilliantly edited 30-minute documentary on Robert Drew himself, Robert Drew in His Own Words.

The pedagogical value of this collection is unparalleled. The Criterion Collection has delivered a work that is now and forever - a work that will enrich and enlighten audiences, students, teachers and scholars for decades to come.


The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates from the Criterion Collection is blessed with: New 2K digital restorations of all four films; an alternate, twenty-six-minute cut of Primary, edited by filmmaker Richard Leacock; audio commentary on Primary, featuring excerpts from a 1961 conversation between Leacock, filmmakers Robert Drew and D. A. Pennebaker and film critic Gideon Bachmann; Robert Drew in His Own Words, a new documentary featuring archival interview footage; a new conversation between Pennebaker and Jill Drew, general manager of Drew Associates and Robert Drew’s daughter-in-law; outtakes from Crisis, along with a discussion by historian Andrew Cohen, author of "Two Days in June"; a new conversation about Crisis featuring former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and Sharon Malone, Holder’s wife and the sister of Vivian Malone, one of the students featured in Crisis; a new interview with Richard Reeves, author of "President Kennedy: Profile of Power"; footage from a 1998 event at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, featuring Drew, Pennebaker, Leacock, and filmmaker Albert Maysles; and an excellent essay by documentary film curator and writer Thomas Powers.