President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy
Photos and Video
When John F. Kennedy launched his bid for the presidency, Robert Drew was there, always a step behind him, catching history on camera as it happened. In the years that followed, Kennedy continued to allow Drew and his team unprecedented access-to his family, to the members of his administration, and to his highlevel briefings on such signal matters as nuclear disarmament and civil rights. Though much of that footage has been seen before, this new, tightly edited cull of the Drew archives provides a timely update of the Kennedy mythos. Not since 1968, when his brother Robert ran, has the John F. Kennedy name been so endlessly or meaningfully invoked in a presidential election. Whatever viewers' takes on the 2008 race, A President to Remember offers an insightful reminder of what an unlikely candidate JFK was all those years ago: an eastern seaboard millionaire seeking to lead the party of the working class, a Catholic subject to generalized suspicion of his faith, a lightly pedigreed upstart running on a platform of change at a time when Cold War paranoia seemed to demand the steady hand of Humphrey, of Johnson, of Nixon. Of course, Kennedy beat them all. But A President to Remember is a film for those who already know the broad outlines of this history and of the events that followed. Narrator Alec Baldwin provides a minimalist gloss on the Bay of Pigs, the rise of the Berlin Wall, and the desegregation showdown with Governor George Wallace, but Drew's camera remains in the back rooms with Kennedy, reading his face as history is being written. For those who know the legend, here's the man.
Director's Statement Collapse
Making our first candid film, Primary (1960), was a spiritual experience based on something close to physical torture. My recollections begin in the New York laboratory of Mitch Bogdanowycz, who was to hand me our new portable camera to take to Wisconsin for a shooting deadline with Senator John F. Kennedy the next morning.
The camera was not quite ready. I missed one flight, then another, then another. I became more and more agitated. The pressure I felt and was transmitting to Mitch was becoming frightening, I think, to both of us. Finally Mitch dropped the camera and rushed to a medicine cabinet. “Oh God,” I thought. “He’s going to commit suicide!” Mitch emptied a bottle into his hand but instead of swallowing the pills, handed them to me. “Tranquilizers,” he said.
That was about the degree of tension we maintained for the next five days and nights. Richard Leacock handled the new camera wired to the Perfectone tape recorder I carried. There were wild cameras I assigned to Al Maysles, Terrence McCartney Filgate, and D.A. Pennebaker.
Our new lightweight camera, an Auricon heavily modified by Mitch, weighed close to 50 pounds, including inverter, power supply, and battery. It took 100 foot rolls of film. That meant we had to change reels roughly every 2.5 minutes. The lenses tended to lose focus, the film would sometimes jitter in the gate. We later learned that the wire from the camera to my recorder was broken the whole time. That meant our system for synchronizing the film and tape was disabled.
Meanwhile Senator Kennedy and Senator Humphrey took us at our word, admitted us into their cars and buses, flogged themselves, and therefore us, to exhaustion every day. For a few hours every night the floor of our hotel room contained three large piles—of dirty clothes, disassembled equipment, and human bodies littered with sheets of yellow paper from the pads I used to plan the next day’s shooting. It was not always easy to distinguish one pile from the other.
But we were excited to our limits, fully aware that this was the beginning of a new kind of filmmaking in America. Primary also opened the way to my making three more films on John F. Kennedy upon which A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy is based.
Forty-five years have passed. Generations have grown up with no experience and little memory of John F. Kennedy. A number of those generations have been less than enthusiastic about presidents they have known. Now, in this election year, unprecedented numbers of Americans are struggling to find signs of new leadership in presidential candidates.
It strikes me that the candid films I made about John F. Kennedy, edited together with other film from the time, could offer examples of an American President who was broadly respected by his countrymen and celebrated around the globe. Thus A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy.
March 24, 2008
Film Information Collapse
Cast & Credits Collapse
Producer Robert Drew
Narrator Alec Baldwin
Photographers Richard Leacock, DA Pennebaker, Al Maysles, James Lipscomb, Abbot Mills
Field Producers Gregory Shuker, Hope Ryden
Connect to this film Collapse
About the Director(s)Collapse
Robert Drew (b. 1924, Toledo, Ohio) became the youngest pilot in the Army Air Corps on his 19th birthday. He flew 31 missions in Italy, was shot down, and evaded German troops for three months before escaping-as he recounted in his From Two Men and a War (Tribeca 2005). As an editor at Life magazine in the '50s, Drew worked out theories for filmmaking based on candid photography, managed the engineering of lightweight cameras, and assembled a group of journalists and filmmakers who developed what came to be known as "direct cinema" (or American cinema vérité) -documentaries with no narration in which the stories told themselves through characters in action. His early successes included such landmarks as Primary (1960), about JFK campaigning for the presidency; The Chair (1963), about capital punishment; and Crisis (1963), about the Cuban missile crisis.