The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

While working at Life magazine in the 1950s, photographer Robert Drew began to ponder why documentary films were so stale in style. And then he did something about it.

In 1960, Drew launched Drew Associates, with the intent on bringing a certain {ahem} life to the documentary that still images were capturing at the time. Call it cinema vérité or direct cinema or observational filmmaking or reality filmmaking or something else entirely. What it did, with the necessary aid of names such as Richard Leacock (who had previously worked on MONTEREY POP and a slew of others), Albert Maysles (who, with his brother David, would helm such essentials as SALESMAN, GIMME SHELTER and GREY GARDENS) and D.A. Pennebaker (DONT LOOK BACK, also MONTEREY POP), was transform the documentary film.

The films compiled for this release are strictly focused on the campaigns, victories and death of John F. Kennedy.

PRIMARY (1960) follows the Wisconsin primary, which pitted JFK against Hubert Humphrey. Shot in five days and spanning less than one hour (a shorter version, edited by Leacock, is half of that), the documentary’s finest moments emphasize how different citizens view the candidates and how these candidates treat the citizens. It also ensures that the viewer sees this. We see that Humphrey goes from person to person to shake hands, while Kennedy waits for voters to come to him. It’s subtle details like this that Drew and associates could capture to help present just the sort of story and character contrast that voters around the country needed.

The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

ADVENTURES ON THE NEW FRONTIER (1961) came about as a result of PRIMARY. JFK was such a fan of the documentary that he had Drew and associates continue their own trail. ADVENTURES ON THE NEW FRONTIER picks up in the early days of Kennedy’s time in office, with Humphrey a long-gone concern. (One wonders if the local that Humphrey invited over for coffee once he got into the White House in PRIMARY is still waiting on his porch.) Kennedy goes about his daily business both inside and outside of Washington, which can be both exciting and dull. But perhaps this was the point, as surely not every day in the White House is booming with action.

CRISIS (1963) zeroes in one of Kennedy’s defining times in office. In June of 1963, Governor George Wallace made his Stand in the Schoolhouse Door at the University of Alabama, opposing the desegregation of the school, specifically the admittance of James Hood and Vivian Malone. In front of Drew’s cameras, the Kennedy administration (including brother Robert and deputy attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach) must decide how to handle the blockade and potential riots as all eyes in America were watching. Drew utilized three film crews to simultaneously capture what was occurring in Washington and Alabama. This provides a thorough account—one of the best—of an iconic moment of the Civil Rights Movement.

FACES OF NOVEMBER (1964) was never supposed to be made—not four years after Drew and associates first met Kennedy, at least. Without narration, the 12-minute film depicts the funeral of JFK, quietly yet bravely noting the loss found not just in his family, but the country.

Throughout the films, the style and approach is aimed to capture events as they happen, to be in the thick of the thickest. Lightweight 16mm cameras slide through crowds and bump open a path just as a person (chiefly Kennedy) would. Sometimes they sit, watching and listening as the President of the United States and his team talk and make decisions that can change the country. They often move, held in hands fortunate enough to be involved in movements both political and cinematic. These fly-on-the-wall manners and this invaluable footage mold one of the most thorough, admirable and authentic accounts of any world leader. The films, now nearing 55-60 years after completion, are demonstrations of how such a series can be completed.


Video: 1.33:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec on all four films. “These new digital transfers were created in 2K resolution on a Scanity film scanner. PRIMARY and CRISIS were created from Academy Film Archive—preserved 16 mm fine-grain positives; ADVENTURES ON THE NEW FRONTIER from an Academy Film Archive—preserved 16 mm fine-grain positive and the original Drew Associates 16 mm fine-grain positive; and FACES OF NOVEMBER from the original 16 mm A/B camera negative. Preservation of the three Academy Film Archive fine-grain positives was done by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in collaboration with The Film Foundation. 2K digital restoration was undertaken by the Criterion Collection. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, jitter, and flicker.”

Considering that the films were shot on 16mm more than 50 years ago, it’s expected that the footage would be in fairly rough shape. Some damage remains and there are noticeable scratches throughout, but this transfer has cleaned up much of this, giving the films their finest-looking home video presentation to date.

Audio: English Mono on all four films. “The original monaural soundtracks were remastered at 24-bit. PRIMARY was remastered from a 16 mm magnetic track; ADVENTURES ON THE NEW FRONTIER from a 16 mm optical soundtrack print; FACES OF NOVEMBER from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print; and CRISIS from the original 35 mm soundtrack negative. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX 4.”

Dialogue is mostly clean, but it runs into some of the same issues that the video does.

Audio commentary on PRIMARY: Comprised of excerpts of a 1961 conversation between Robert Drew, Richard Lealock, D.A. Pennebaker and film critic Gideon Bachmann, this track offers a nice talk about how the film was done.

The Lealock Version of PRIMARY (26:53), shortened by close to 30 minutes.

Robert Drew in His Own Words (34:12): This piece collects numerous interviews with Drew to present a look at his career and creation of a “new form of journalism,” from his time at Life magazine to his innovative documentary films

Jill Drew and D.A. Pennebaker (26:22): Drew Associates general manager Jill Drew and filmmaker Pennebaker discuss working with Robert Drew, documenting JFK and the revolutionary way of capturing footage.

Andrew Cohen on CRISIS and Its Outtakes (46:23): Historian Cohen, author of Two Days I June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History, reflects on JFK and discusses some of the footage that was not included in the final cut of CRISIS. Some of this footage is included.

Sharon Malone and Eric Holder (26:15): Malone (sister of Vivian Malone) and husband Holder (former U.S. attorney general) reflect on the incidents that inspired CRISIS and the importance of the aftermath.

Richard Reeves (27:12): Historian Reeves, author of President Kennedy: Profile of Power, touches on JFK’s campaign, presidency and legacy.

Drew Associates at the Museum of Tolerance (26:41): Drew, in addition to collaborations Pennebaker, Richard Lealock and Albert Maysles are featured in this footage from a 1998 event which premiered restorations of the company’s Kennedy films.

Also included with this Criterion Collection release is an essay by documentary film curator and writer Thom Powers.


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