Criterion puts together a rather impressive edition for Robert Drew’s short documentaries about John F. Kennedy in their new Blu-ray The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates. The dual-layer disc includes the films Primary, Adventures on the New Frontier, Crisis, and Faces of November. All four films are presented in their original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1. All four also come from new 2K scans of the available 16mm elements: Faces of November comes from the 16mm A/B negative, while the other films all come from 16mm fine-grain master positives (New Frontier sourced from two different ones according to the notes).
While all four are limited in varying degrees due to shooting conditions or the general condition of the source material, on the whole they all look surprisingly good. Faces of November is probably the best looking of the four, if only because it’s probably the cleanest in both terms of print condition and the actual transfer. Primary suffers from the most visible damage, though I think a lot of it comes from the filmmakers just winging it and getting used to their new equipment, which had been put together just for this film to make it easier to follow the subjects. There are many moments where vertical lines rain through, scratches and marks get a bit heavy, and hairs and other debris show up.
Adventures on the New Frontier and Crisis still present scratches and marks but they’re nowhere near as heavy as what it is in Primary, and then, as mentioned previously, Faces of November is probably in the best shape. (That might not be an entirely fair comparison since Faces is the shortest of the bunch, only running 12-minutes, where the others are all over 50-minutes.) But despite these shortcomings the restoration work is pretty good and the damage remaining was probably left out of fear of harming the image overall.
The transfers themselves are okay but a bit of a mixed bag. There is a lot of material on this one disc, running almost 6-and-a-half hours in total (between the films and supplements, not counting the optional commentary on Primary)and it’s possible that fact may have hampered things a bit; two discs would have been ideal. All four films, shot on 16mm, are very grainy and grain management leaves a bit to be desired. The quality of the rendering does vary throughout all of the films (I felt it looked best on the whole in Faces of November) and it can look natural enough a good chunk of the time, but compression problems are usually lingering and darker scenes (especially the ones that are really grainy) can look quite the mess, especially a very dark scene in Primary where Kennedy and his team are awaiting results: details become a bit muddled, shadow delineation is limited, and blocky patterns can be made out. The other films also present some similar sequences.
Past this, the transfers are at least pleasing enough on the whole. Contrast is otherwise very strong and I was impressed with gray levels and tonal shifts. Details are excellent when the source allows, and when it’s at its best it does look like a film. I think most of the shortcomings in all four films are due more to the source, but there are some obvious digital anomalies as well. 7/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion has put together a rather impressive special edition for these films, loading on a lot of additional material, which covers just about every angle about these films and the filmmakers behind them. Mentioned throughout is how Kennedy saw the Drew films as a great way to make important historical documents and what Criterion does here is to extend on that, offering up a release that serves to offer more context around the era covered in the films, while also examining the historical significance of these films in not just terms of documentary filmmaking but filmmaking as a whole.
From the main menu you can select either of the four films, which then each open their own sub menus for chapters and other options. Each film also receives their own Timeline feature. Primary is the unique title in the set as it does get its own set of special features. The main presentation of the film is the longer, 53-minute version, but Criterion does present an alternate 26-minute version, known as the Leacock Version. The film was made with the intent of being shown on television, but once finished Drew had a hard time getting any networks to bite; they simply didn’t know what to make of the film. There was the possibility it would be picked up in a shorter version so Leacock put together this edit. It’s actually not a bad edit, and manages to pack in most of the sequences, though trimming them down heavily in places (obviously), like the wait for the primary results, which is significantly shorter. Admirably the edit does still try to provide the same amount of coverage for both Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, though I guess I felt this time around, from the material we do get, the film seemed more interested in Kennedy, where the longer edit didn’t have that sway (could just be me, though). I would more than likely stick with the longer edit but it’s an interesting look at the power of editing.
Primary is also the only film in the release to come with an ”audio commentary,” though it’s a “commentary” in name only. It’s actually excerpts from a 1961 audio conversation (that I assume appeared on the radio at some point) between Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and Gideon Bachmann. It doesn’t have a lot to do with Primary directly, but is more a conversation about this then new style of documentary filmmaking. The four (though primarily Drew and Bachmann) get into surprisingly deep conversations about cinema and filmmaking in general, with Drew explaining how he feels their style of filmmaking is better at capturing “truth” because, despite being edited into a narrative in the end, they simply follows their subjects without any interference on their part, unlike Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North, where he would step in and manipulate the environment and the subject to fit what he wanted to capture. There’s even talk about how simply waiting around for the right kind of weather isn’t really capturing the truth. Though Bachmann seems to be covering their work as a whole up to that point, Primary (which Bachmann keeps calling “this Kennedy thing”) is receiving most of the attention, and there is talk about certain sequences, particularly the impressive early sequence where the camera follows Kennedy through a crowd. Again it is not screen specific to Primary in any way, so it wasn’t necessary to have it play over the film, though I think Criterion probably presented it this way to make it a more dynamic and interesting feature.
(Criterion originally listed the commentary as accompanying the shorter “Leacock” version, but it actually plays over the longer version.)
The remaining supplements are all found under the “Supplements” section of the main menu. The first is Robert Drew in His Own Words, a 34-minute compilation of footage from various interviews with the director. After a rather cute opening where Drew tries to show how to cook the perfect pancake (only to fail in doing so) we then get the story of his entire career through old archival interviews, recent interviews, and even an interview that looks to have been recorded for another DVD release (the footage just has that feel, I don’t know for sure if that is the case). He covers his work at LIFE, going into the broadcast division, and then how he came to make Primary. He explains how he wanted to take documentaries in a new direction, wanting to make them feel less like lectures and feel more like fiction films that are driven by a narrative, while never interfering with the subject he was filming. It’s a actually a beautifully edited together piece and I was impressed, the segment reminding me a bit of Soderbergh’s And Everything is Going Fine. It jumps back and forth between footage and time periods, but it’s a very thorough and cohesive segment on the director, even supplying some fascinating details and footage about the equipment they used for their films. Wonderfully done.
Next is a conversation between Jill Drew and D.A. Pennebaker, where Pennebaker talks about working with Drew and shooting the films, focusing most of his attention on Primary and the difficulties that came with it (he talks a fair amount about the synch issues with the audio). He also talks about the equipment and getting certain shots. He shares some stories about Adventures on the New Frontier, recalling how it was to work with Kennedy. Kennedy would constantly forget the camera was there, and would come close to talking about things he shouldn’t in front of them. Of course, other people there wouldn’t forget the cameras were there, and would constantly kick them out of rooms or simply not let them in to certain meetings. Kennedy obviously understood the advantage of having a crew there filming him, though: as a history buff, the President knew this footage would serve as a document for future generations, and this was probably the one thing that led him to agreeing to being filmed. It’s a fairly meaty interview for just 26-minutes.
The next feature is basically a collection of outtakes from Crisis, hosted by Andrew Cohen. Cohen talks about the film and its subject matter (about how Alabama governor George Wallace wouldn’t allow two black students to enter the state university), the time period, the Kennedy brothers, and Wallace, and then talks about some of the concerns and details around the situation that weren’t presented in the film. He covers a series of outtakes, from a speech Robert Kennedy made at Trinity College, to a number of sequences filmed in the Attorney General’s office, along with other meetings between John Kennedy and staff, Vivian Malone at the NCAAP, and so on. The feature runs 46-minutes, with Cohen taking up about the first 20-minutes’ of it. The remainder of the feature presents the outtakes Cohen was talking about in their entirety. It sounds like there is more footage out there, but this is a good selection expanding on the film’s content.
The next feature is a big but welcome surprise: Criterion has managed to get an interview with Sharon Malone (Vivian Malone’s sister) and her husband, former Attorney General Eric Holder. I thought this was a rather huge “get” on Criterion’s part and this segment is easily the best feature in this set full of great features. It’s a wide ranging conversation with a focus on Sharon Malone’s sister, Vivian, and her fight to be able to go to Alabama State University. Her sister didn’t talk a lot about it (undoubtedly it was stressful) and it sounds as though she tried to be good humoured about it around her family, but I think one would have to be to make it through something so stressful. Sharon Malone was of course very young when this all took place, but she recalls everything pretty vividly even if she didn’t understand it all at the time, predominantly the abuse and threats her sister and her family had to endure. She also shares some rather horrifying and, frankly, insane policies the state had at one time in keep the schools segregated.
Malone then talks fondly of her sister, giving us a better idea of the person past what we know from history. Holder talks a bit about her as well, and what he learned about her over the years, just by coming across photos she appears in, things that his wife didn’t know about either. He also offers his perspective on Robert Kennedy as Attorney General, fleshing out some of the difficulties the job holds and sharing his own experiences. In all it’s a great addition, another historical account to accompany the film, fleshing out more details presented in the film, particularly in allowing us to get to know Vivian Malone all the better. The interview runs 26-minutes.
Author and historian Richard Reeves then talks about the Kennedy administration, through all of its ups and downs, the big down possibly being “Bay of Pigs,” which even Robert Kennedy, then very inexperienced, thought was a stupid idea. He of course mentions civil rights movement as well as touching on went on behind the scenes when dealing with Wallace blocking black students from entering the state university. There’s also mention of matters more personal to Kennedy, Reeves commenting that the biggest secret Kennedy held wasn’t the fact that he was known as a womanizer (which it appeared everyone knew anyways), but that he had Addison’s disease, something everyone around him held close to their chest. Though some of this material is actually covered elsewhere I liked that we got a fairly decent analysis of Kennedy’s time in office in one single feature. It runs 27-minutes.
Criterion then provides footage of Drew, Pennebaker, Leacock, and Albert Maysles at The Museum of Tolerance for the premiere of a new restoration of their films. The footage edits together individual interviews with the four and then moves on to a panel discussion. I’m not sure how much of the panel discussion was actually used but Criterion seems to focus more on Maysles during this portion, with the filmmaker talking about what they were trying to accomplish and the rules they would follow. Humourously Maysles does admit some bias while filming Primary: he preferred Humphrey over Kennedy. The moderator has a few good questions and I especially liked one about whether the filmmakers—who have been saying they are trying to stay objective—would “interfere” if they felt what they were filming was morally questionable. In all the 27-minute feature is the perfect way to close the disc.
Criterion also includes a booklet (yes, a booklet) featuring an essay by Thom Powers, who goes over each film in the set while also covering the filmmakers (calling Drew, Leacock, Pennebaker, and Maysles The Beatles of documentary filmmakers, even mentioning there was a fifth “Beatle” in this group as well, Terence Macartney-Filgate). He also talks about the impact these films have had on documentary filmmaking.
In the end this is really a fabulous, well rounded set of supplements that covers just about every angle of the films in the set: they go over their background, their influence on films since, the technology that was born from them, and what the goals of the filmmakers were. Outside of the films the supplements provide more context for the time period covered in the films, expand on the subject matter of each one, and also examine the administration itself. It’s a beautifully put together special edition that doesn’t leave one wanting more. 10/10