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50th Anniversary of JFK Assassination
Remind Me

Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963)

Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) provided filmmaker Robert Drew, his crew and his audience the rare opportunity to watch a President of the United States deal with a national crisis. In this case, the crisis of the title was the attempted integration of the University of Alabama by African-American students by the Kennedy Administration and the machinations of then Governor George Wallace to stop them.

Robert Drew and his crew of Drew Associates, which included filmmakers Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and James Lipscomb, were acquainted with President Kennedy, having filmed him and his opponent Hubert Humphrey during the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary for their documentary Primary (1960). When Drew screened the film for Kennedy in West Palm Beach, Florida, before the inauguration, he proposed to Kennedy "that we make a new kind of history of the presidency, that we would see and feel all the things that bore on the presidency at a given time the expressions on faces, the mood of the country, the tensions in the room so that future presidents could look back at this and see and learn. And I thought Kennedy, who had written a history book, might agree that history should be recorded in a different way." Kennedy agreed, musing, "Yes-what if I could see what went on in the White House during the 24 hours before FDR declared war on Japan?"

Before filming began, Kennedy wanted Drew to shoot some test footage to see how well he would do in front of the cameras or if he would be distracted by them. According to Drew, as so often happens in modern reality programs, the members of the administration became so used to the camera that they forgot the film crew was there. Drew recalled that Admiral Arleigh Burke "had to remind the President that he was being filmed at that moment, and it was about time for us to leave the Joint Chiefs of Staff room where they were talking about maneuvers off Cuba."

Although permission had been given by the Kennedy Administration, the "crisis" of the title didn't take place for another two years. By that time, Drew Associates was working for ABC-TV's Living Camera, a ten-film series, later distributed by Time-Life. Drew later remembered that they had already shot the earlier footage as the test for Kennedy and once the crew was installed, "we became part of the woodwork there as we did most everyplace else." Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach wrote in his memoirs that when he first learned that the Kennedys had given Drew permission to film as he wished, he worried that the cameras would be inhibiting, "but it proved not to be. Drew used teams of two, a cameraman who used natural lighting and a sound person with a tape recorder. [...] Drew was impressive, not merely technically but with respect to his integrity. At no time did he or any of his crews discuss the issues off-camera or reveal to either side what the other was saying. The result turned out to be a unique view of government in operation."

The film covers the events that took place in the thirty hours between June 10th and June 11th, 1960 in four principal locations. In Washington, D.C., the cameras were in the offices of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the Oval office of the White House, where President Kennedy federalized the National Guard and debated when and where he should address the nation. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the crew followed Governor Wallace and his administration, as well as Nicholas Katzenbach, who was with Vivian Malone and James A. Hood, the two students attempting to register for classes. Drew showed both sides of the issue and the build-up to the showdown between Wallace and the Kennedys. In the end, Wallace stepped aside and Malone and Hood were allowed to enter, but until that moment, neither side was entirely sure what would happen, which created the real-life drama.

Crisis debuted on October 21, 1963, and ABC-TV was deluged with angry calls from viewers who were upset that cameras had been allowed in the Oval Office. The point was practically moot, for almost one month to the day after Crisis premiered, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The subsequent funeral would be the subject of Drew's next film, Faces of November (1964).

Over the years, Crisis has become even more important as a historical document of the Kennedy Administration and Robert Kennedy and the era of Civil Rights. Ironically, within eight years of the release of Crisis, all three of the main participants in the film, the Kennedy brothers and George Wallace, would all be shot in assassination attempts. Only George Wallace would survive, but he would be permanently paralyzed. In later years, Wallace would undergo a conversion and renounce his former segregationist beliefs before his own death in 1998.

The Library of Congress inducted Crisis into the National Film Registry in 2011, declaring it a "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film" and ensuring its preservation.

By Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES: Aitken, Ian The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film Barsam, Richard Meran Nonfiction Film: A Critical History Goduti, Philip A. Robert Kennedy and the Shaping of Civil Rights 1960-1964 The Internet Movie Database Katzenbach, Nicholas deB. Some of It Was Fun: Working with RFK and LBJ Lee-Wright, Peter The Documentary Handbook MacDonald, Scott American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn Niemi, Robert History in the Media: Film and Television O'Connell, P.J. Robert Drew and the Development of Cinema Verite in America