Seeking to invigorate the American documentary format, which he felt was rote and uninspired, Robert Drew brought the style and vibrancy he had fostered as a Life magazine correspondent to filmmaking in the late fifties. He did this by assembling an amazing team—including such eventual nonfiction luminaries as Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles—that would transform documentary cinema. In 1960, the group was granted direct access to John F. Kennedy, filming him on the campaign trail and eventually in the Oval Office. This resulted in three films of remarkable, behind-closed-doors intimacy—Primary, Adventures on the New Frontier, and Crisis—and, following the president’s assassination, the poetic short Faces of November.Collected here are all four of these titles, early exemplars of the movement known as Direct Cinema and featuring the greatest close-up footage we have of this American icon.
When you look back on the history of documentary filmmaking, there's one specific group that tread new paths and stands out as the "Godfather" of the format – Robert Drew & Associates. Back when the concept trod uncharted territory, they found an arena that accepted them and granted them access to the previously undocumented area: the world of politics.
Robert Drew & Associates entered the big time during the primaries of 1960. The campaigning parties for both Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy allowed the group access to their public events, as well as behind-closed-doors settings. The footage was cut together to create an initimate perspective of the primary process by viewing it through the eyes of two competing politicians. The 53-minute film 'Primary,' which aired shortly thereafter as a television special, kicked off a strong relationship JFK, and, ultimately, those who worked with him in the oval office.
Following 'Primary,' Robert Drew & Associates filmed two more 53-minute docs that revolve around the JFK presidency – 'Adventures on the New Frontier' and 'Crisis.' Instead of giving each its own individual Blu-ray release, Criterion has placed all three of the documentaries in this single release. Included with them is 'Faces of November,' a 12-minute collection of dialog-less footage of JFK's state funeral that depicts the nation's reaction to his assassination.
'Adventures on the New Frontier' is the only of the four films that I could do without. Following Kennedy's innauguration, being a fan of what Robert Drew & Associates did with 'Primary' (which didn't solely focus on his campaign nor promote him as the candidate who should receive the party's nomination), Kennedy invited the group into the White House to film some of the everyday tasks that the President of the United States of America must undergo. Although it's meant to feel like a completely candid respresentation, it feels more like a propaganda film that says, "Do you see how much your president does for you on a daily basis?" The footage is hardly fluid, jumping around from this topic to that. It's very messy and hardly interesting. 'Crisis,' on the other hand, is the most interesting of the lot.
'Crisis' primarily focuses on the events of June 10, 1963. At the time, the United States was in the middle of a major social change to grant equal rights to the black population. Blacks were then being granted access to the same educational institutions as white Americans; however, Alabama governor George Wallace wouldn't accept collegiate integration. Two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, had been accepted to the University of Alabama, but Wallace claimed that if they arrived for classes on the first day of school, that they wouldn't be allowed into the school. With Alabama being the last state to adopt integration, this showdown between the White House and Wallace had potential to stir another smaller-scale civil war. Tensions ran high and it absolutely shines through in this documentary. This is a part of American history that I don't recall learning in school, so I'm certainly glad that Kennedy felt inclined to have Robert Drew & Associates capture this piece of history from both sides of the story.
It's hard to delve into politics without facing bias. I cannot deny that there's bias in the Kennedy films of Robert Drew & Associates, but the intimate historical events that they capture are absolutely worth a look – especially for the history and documentary buffs out there. The historical aspects far outweigh the politicals ones and ultimately make this an eye-opening series of documentaries.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has placed all four of the Kennedy films on a single Region A BD-50 disc that's housed in a standard clear keepcase with #808 on the spine. A booklet is included with an essay from Thom Powers and details about the new trasfer. As usual, nothing plays before the main menu.
'The Kennedy Films' are each presented with 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encodes and 1.33:1 aspect ratios. Although the four different film were shot at four different times and on two different film mediums, the quality barely varies between each. Although its obvious that some care has been put into this transfer, with as many of the aging issues as it has, the imagery is not as cleaned up as we're used to from Criterion discs.
Of the four, 'Primary' has retained the most amount of flaws. For some long shots, vertical runs wiggle and fade in boldness nearly the entire time. They're not as harsh as they would be had the imagery not been remastered; they're fainter than one would expect from film this old – but they're definitely still present. Small scratches, specks, fibers and hairs are fairly common. 'Primary,' 'Adventures on the New Frontier' and 'Crisis' each carry a strong amount of film grain. Being shot on 16 mm, it's expected. Some instances of noise result from the transfer.
'Faces of November' is easily the least flawed of the four. This could be the result of a couple factors: one, it's much shorter than the others and thus doesn't offer an equal amount of footage that could be flawed; two, it was shot on 35 mm film stock, allowing for more definition.
From films as old as these, it's expected that some flaws would shine through after the transfer process – but it's a little surprising to see so many flaws retained from a Criterion remaster. These flaws aren't attrocious and they don't ruin the viewing experience, but know that you're not getting tip-top video here.
The original one-channel audio tracks for each film have been remastered into LPCM mono tracks. The audio has been remastered and cleaned up as much as possible, but the original source flaws are still present. Please note that those original issues are not reflected in the audio rating.
The biggest source flaw that appears is dialog that's not locally miced. During those scenes, with the production mics being so far away, conversations or speeches can become very hard to hear. The volume of the dialog is so low that you might find yourself frequently adjusting the volume. Of the four films, 'Faces of November' is the only one to not suffer from this issue and that's because it's purely dialogless.
There isn't much in the way of warble, clicks, thumps or hiss, but at times you'll notice the audio quality change in the middle of a scene, as if the tape ran out on one audio recorder and a back-up recording device's tape was used for the rest of the scene. During 'Crisis,' the music's volume inconsistently and slowly rises and lowers, giving it a fade-in and fade-out feel mid-scene. I can't tell if this is a flaw in the source material or the transfer – but considering the otherwise consistent qualities, I'd assume that it's due to the source recording.
With far more historical events existing than one could possibly learn in a lifetime, it's always nice to learn a new aspect of it. Criterion's overall release of 'The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates' does just that. The first film gives an intimate look at the political primary process as it used to be in the '60s. The second is propaganda-ish filler. The third is a caught-as-it-unfolded view of a historical event that's not taught as much as it should be. And the fourth offers a somber view of the shock that hit the nation after JFK's assassination and during his memorial. The mono audio track features some original source quality issues and many of the aging flaws from the video quality still show strongly. Overshadowing the presentation flaws are 3.5 hours of specials that couldn't possibly be any better than they are. Although I definitely recommend giving the disc a shot, I can't forwardly recommend adding it to your collection.