Friday, August 29, 2008

The Robert Drew Kennedy Films: A Past that Mirrors Our Times
With the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions upon us, and the Presidential race finally entering its last lap, US politics are a hot ticket. They’re burning up all the networks, and they’re the darling of the tabloids. Pity that in all that coverage, issues are buried beneath the glam factors of potential First Ladies and candidates’ favorite pop culture heroes. Given that, it’s not surprising that some circles liken the McCain-Obama election race to the Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960. Indeed, there are parallels, magnified out of proportion though they may be. Then, like now, the times were more about drama than substance. TV was the New Media of the time, and just as the Internet sometimes stumbles as it finds its footing, television for the most part didn’t quite realize the power it held. As one might expect, seeds of revolution were quietly taking root, with politicians and documentarians shaping a new zeitgeist.

Robert Drew was instrumental in reshaping the voice and visage of the news, taking it from a “talking head” format to something more immersive and immediate. In the process, he invented the cinema verite style of film journalism. Thus, The Robert Drew Collection - JFK Revealed (Primary / Crisis / Faces of November) (1963) offers an intimate look of JFK, the likes of which had never been recorded, and also serves as an historical document in its own right. These films represent the origins of cinema verite, wherein the viewer becomes a passive participant in the film. There’s no narration, only the players in the film followed silently by hand-held cameras, leaving the viewer to draw his own conclusions about the events transcribed.

The first film in the collection, Primary, follows the campaigns of Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey and upstart Massachusetts senator John Kennedy as they vie for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960.The contrasts between the two are stark: Humphrey is an old-school politician attempting to appeal to Wisconsin voters’ agricultural roots at the expense of the “eastern elite”, portraying himself as a champion of the common man. Kennedy, on the other hand, can be perceived as a celebrity adored by urban voters and youth, a rock star before that term was used in politics. The real stars of the film, though, are the voters of Wisconsin, whose views are surprisingly diverse. And even though we know how it ends, Drew’s filmmaking prowess makes it a nail biting finish.

Crisis picks up three and a half years into Kennedy’s administration, centering around the civil rights showdown with Alabama’s governor George Wallace. By this time, Drew and his crews had pretty much perfected their “fly on the wall” technique, and had unprecedented access to the White House and to the Governor’s Mansion in Alabama, as well. Thus, we see both sides of the conflict, centering around Wallace’s refusal to admit two African- American students to the all- white University of Alabama. It all comes to a head on 11 June 1963, when Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, at the behest of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, confronts Wallace on the steps of the university. And though it all ends peacefully, the wranglings leading up to the Kennedy victory in the case are the stuff of drama.

The final film in the collection, “The Faces of November,” is a scant eleven minutes long, and is credited as a bonus feature in the set. Nonetheless, it may be the most moving piece in the collection. It could best be described as an account of JFK’s funeral, but that would be giving it short shrift. It’s a quiet tribute to the man, made all the more poignant by the fact that we feel we know the man as a result of the other films in the collection. The faces we see in the film represent all the faces of America in November 1963, and they show an America that mourns as one.

Those expecting a crystalline restoration of this collection may be disappointed. It’s what it is, analog warts and all. In no small measure, it evokes memories to those who lived through those times, and gives a grainy sense of history to those who did not. There are running commentaries on Primary and Crisis to put it all in historical perspective, as well as featurettes featuring Drew and his collaborators discussing their vision of a documentary style that owed as much to the photos of Life Magazine as filmmaking.

Mainly, though, the Robert Drew Kennedy Collection demonstrates, however unintentionally, the cycles of history. Watching them, particularly Primary, it’s nigh impossible to see how much the face of America has changed. It also illustrates how little our hopes and fears have changed. In that context, particularly in the Obama-McCain race, the collection offers invaluable perspectives on what actually makes a president credible.