Capturing Kennedy On Film


Americans can't get enough of going behind the scenes -- whether it's into the fictionalized Washington of HBO's ''K Street,'' the rock'n'roll household of ''The Osbournes,'' or the huddles of NBA basketball teams. But 40 years ago, such intimate access -- and the technology that enabled it -- were brand-new. When a young Life magazine reporter named Robert Drew told John F. Kennedy that he wanted to film the junior senator's every move during a week of his presidential campaign, the proposal was unprecedented. By consenting to Drew's pitch, the media-savvy candidate fostered the creation of two remarkable documentaries.

''Primary,'' made during the 1960 election race, reveals Kennedy as a long-shot candidate enthralling crowds to emerge as the front-runner. The follow-up, ''Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment,'' released three years later, takes viewers into the White House as Kennedy grapples with a potentially violent clash over civil rights. (Both films, which have just been released on DVD and VHS by Docurama, will be shown on the History Channel on Nov. 22.) Drew's team ushered in a new style of filmmaking, which was dubbed cina vit and over the years mutated into ''reality television.'' Suddenly America had a new way of seeing itself.

When Drew first approached Kennedy, the 42-year-old senator was still considered an unlikely nominee -- too young, too Catholic, too Eastern Establishment. In order to overcome such biases, the Boston-bred son of a millionaire had to prove himself in the Wisconsin primary against Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, a favorite among Midwestern farmers and the Democratic Party's liberal wing.

Drew saw this contest as perfect material to test his theory of documentary making by bringing Life's spontaneous style of photography to the screen. To Drew, most nonfiction television programs, including Edward R. Murrow's acclaimed ''See it Now,'' were mere ''illustrated lectures.'' He thought television could do a better job than it had evoking the drama of real life; viewers could then rely on written works for a more complete analysis. Studying television as a Harvard Nieman fellow in 1955, Drew wrote, ''TV is better at stimulating, and printed media are better at satiating.''

Drew convinced his bosses at Life to spend half a million dollars on inventing handheld gear that could be used by a mobile two-person crew. He hired a crew of emerging talents, including Richard Leacock, an accomplished cameraman who would later teach film at MIT. Leacock recruited former engineer D.A. Pennebaker, who would go on to make the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary ''Dont Look Back'' and the 1993 Clinton campaign film ''The War Room.'' Pennebaker brought along Albert Maysles, the future maker of such seminal documentaries as ''Gimme Shelter'' (1970) and ''Grey Gardens'' (1975).

Together, Drew and his team devised a set of revolutionary principles: No interviews. Tell the story through action, not narration. Don't interfere with what's happening, just observe. In ''Primary,'' the cameras follow the candidates as they meet voters on the street, catnap in cars, and confer with aides in private rooms. Instead of filming rallies with a camera locked down on a tripod and a podium microphone providing the only sound, Maysles's camera trails Kennedy through a crowd of hundreds of supporters singing his campaign song ''High Hopes'' in a hall in Milwaukee's Polish Catholic district.

On election night, Leacock's camera observes Kennedy awaiting the results in his hotel suite with family and colleagues. Among the small group of guests present was Theodore White, whose innovative 1961 book ''The Making of the President 1960'' supplied plenty of information not found in ''Primary'': how individual precincts voted, how Kennedy's well-funded organization outflanked Humphrey, how Kennedy's ultimate 56 percent of the vote fell short of his hopes. But the film evokes something that no book could equal: ''We did capture the look of it,'' Leacock said in an interview recently, ''the sense of being there which I think is important.''

After laborious weeks of editing, Drew encountered stiff odds against selling his work to a national network. News executives were wary of outside producers; audiences weren't used to handheld camerawork; and the Wisconsin race was already old news. The hour-long show wound up reduced to 26 minutes and syndicated to local stations owned by Time Inc. after Kennedy had defeated Richard Nixon.

Despite the poor distribution of ''Primary,'' Kennedy was impressed by the film. As president-elect, Kennedy invited Drew to a private screening at his family's vacation home in Palm Beach. Media historian Mary Ann Watson, who interviewed several Kennedy aides for her 1990 book ''The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years,'' credits ''Primary'' with opening Kennedy's mind to new uses for film. ''He was thinking of documentation different from official papers or posed photographs,'' Watson writes. ''Kennedy was imagining a film record that would provide the real looks on people's faces and their tone of voice.''

Drew, emboldened by a warm reception, proposed an even more daring idea: to follow the president in the White House during a crisis. Kennedy liked the concept. ''Think of what it would be like,'' he said, ''if I could see in the White House 24 hours before Roosevelt declared war on Japan.''

Shortly after Kennedy's inauguration, the president invited Drew for two days of test filming inside the Oval Office. The footage, used in the 1961 ABC program ''Adventures on the New Frontier,'' didn't yield much fresh insight. The show surveyed various initiatives of the new administration and resembled the ''illustrated lecture'' format that Drew disdained. But the test allayed Kennedy's concerns about bringing cameras into the White House.

Over the next three years, Kennedy himself mastered the use of television to connect directly with the public without relying on the press as a middleman. He frequently gave televised press conferences and approved shows such as CBS's 1962 hit special ''A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.'' ''When we don't have to go through you bastards, we can really get our story to the American people,'' Kennedy told his journalist friend Ben Bradlee.

In the meantime, Drew's project was floundering. Whenever a potential conflict arose, Drew would call Kennedy's press secretary Pierre Salinger, only to be told, ''How can you call when we're in the middle of a crisis?''

By the spring of 1963, Time-Life was pulling the plug on Drew Associates's financing. Leacock and Pennebaker were looking to leave, Maysles had already moved on, and the company was in danger of going under.

Around that time, newspapers started reporting of a new crisis in the making. A federal court order had mandated that the University of Alabama accept the enrollment of two black students. Governor George Wallace was threatening to stand in the school's doorway to block their entrance. The previous year, a similar conflict in Oxford, Miss., had caused riots.

Pennebaker and producer Gregory Shuker recognized that Alabama could be the next flashpoint for civil rights. Instead of going through the White House, they won permission from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to cover the story inside the Justice Department. The White House admitted the crew to film deliberations in the Oval Office on the condition that the administration could approve the film before it aired. At the last minute, ABC agreed to pay for the program. Crews were dispatched to follow events simultaneously in Washington and Alabama.

''Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment,'' filmed in June 1963, cross-cuts between the perspectives of the Kennedys, Wallace, the black students, and the urbane US Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who was handling the case in Alabama. The tension builds with every scene as Wallace eulogizes his Confederate heroes, the attorney general contemplates calling in the National Guard, the President's advisers debate the political fallout, the NAACP advises the students on possible risks, and Katzenbach instructs federal marshals to ''take whatever force is necessary'' to protect the students.

One of the most memorable scenes is a sequence of phone calls between Robert Kennedy in Washington and Katzenbach in Alabama, who plan to call in the National Guard if Wallace defies Katzenbach's authority. At one point, Kennedy breaks the tension by putting his 3-year-old daughter Kerry on the phone. The chain-smoking Katzenbach suddenly turns sugary sweet: ''The temperature down here is 98 degrees. You tell your father that. Tell him we're all going to get hardship pay.''

After this light-hearted moment, Katzenbach heads off for his historic confrontation with Wallace on the steps of the university. Surrounded by the press, Wallace denounces ''this illegal and unwarranted action by the central government.'' Wallace stood his ground until 100 troops arrived later in the day and the black students were permitted to enroll -- an iconic scene recreated in the 1994 film ''Forrest Gump.'' That night Kennedy gave his strongest speech on civil rights, calling it a ''moral issue'' and pushing for new legislation in Congress.

Four months later, ABC broadcast ''Crisis,'' creating the first storm of controversy over what we now call reality television. The New York Herald-Tribune hailed ''Crisis'' as a ''milestone in film journalism.'' Taking a contrary view, The New York Times attacked the White House for turning ''the private deliberations of the executive branch . . . into a melodramatic peep show.'' The next month, Kennedy was assassinated and the debate was moot. No camera crew was ever granted such candid access to the Oval Office again.

Since that time, like many classic documentaries, ''Primary'' and ''Crisis'' have suffered from benign neglect. But their legacy permeated the culture, as the handheld approach became the norm not just in documentaries but also in TV news, Hollywood films, and music videos. Their influence can be felt in Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's ''The War Room,'' which made celebrities out of campaign aides James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, and more recently in the 2002 film ''Journeys with George,'' in which Alexandra Pelosi documented the sycophantic press corps trailing George W. Bush's campaign over a year.

Comparing ''Primary'' with Pelosi's film shows us how much has changed in 40 years. Whereas Kennedy was accompanied by a single mobile crew, Bush traveled with a cluster of boom poles constantly surrounding him. We may see much more these days, but perhaps we grasp much less.

Thom Powers is writing a book about documentary film called ''Stranger Than Fiction.'' His most recent documentary, ''Guns & Mothers,'' was shown on PBS's Independent Lens last spring.

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