Adventures on the New Frontier (1961)
In 1960 producer/director Robert Drew, a filmmaker who began his career as a Life magazine editor with Time, Inc., had spent five days filming Kennedy on the campaign trail against Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin presidential primary, which resulted in the groundbreaking documentary Primary (1960). Drew and his collaborators on Primary, which included influential documentary filmmakers Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles among others, had established a breakthrough filmmaking style labeled cinéma vérité in which lightweight mobile sync sound cameras were able to capture events as they were actually happening with minimal interference and commentary. The success of Primary set the standard for the vérité movement in the documentary community and established a lasting trust between Robert Drew and John F. Kennedy.
It was after Drew screened Primary for Kennedy just before his inauguration that he proposed a longer term working relationship with the new young president. "At that time I was proposing that we make a new kind of history of the presidency," recalls Drew, "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 had immediately embraced the media as a political tool and understood early on the power of television as a means of instantly reaching millions of people and shaping public opinion. "[Kennedy] considered himself to be something of a historian...and I made the point to him that when he entered the White House he would find the record of past presidents," said Drew according to P.J. O'Connell's 1992 book Robert Drew and the Development of Cinéma Vérité in America, "and there would be pictures of men shaking hands in front of automobiles and making speeches, and still pictures, and motion pictures, and there would be official papers, but that he wouldn't see the expression on the man's face, and he wouldn't actually see for himself how a president felt about anything in the past."
Kennedy was intrigued by the idea. "Yes," he said to Drew. "Think of what it would be like if I could see what Franklin Roosevelt did in the 24 hours before World War II was declared, before America's declaration of war was declared."
With this long term idea in mind, Drew proposed that he and his crew be allowed to film Kennedy at work in the White House for a few days. The project, Adventures on the New Frontier, would serve as a kind of test. It was one thing for Kennedy to allow himself to be filmed constantly on the campaign trail before being elected president in Primary, but how would he react with cameras watching his every move in the Oval Office?
"The purpose of this filming," recalls Drew, "would be to see if [Kennedy] could tolerate the camera, if the work of the presidency could really proceed with the camera there. He had been oblivious of it in the shooting of Primary but he wasn't so sure that he could be so oblivious of it conducting business in the Oval Office. So [Adventures on the New Frontier] would be in advance of a real film, a real story that we would do at some other time."
Much to Drew's relief, it was just as easy for Kennedy to forget about the cameras for this project as it was on Primary. So easy, in fact, that Kennedy sometimes had to be reminded by his advisors to be careful of what he said in front of them.
Because it dealt with potentially sensitive matters at the White House, Kennedy was allowed as part of the deal to see the film before it was shown publicly and request edits to anything that might compromise national interests. Ultimately, Kennedy liked what he saw in the final result and had no objections to any of the content.
Adventures on the New Frontier aired on ABC television as part of its Close-Up! series in 1961. Its success as a film and Kennedy's proven ease with cameras in the White House helped pave the way for Drew's next documentary collaboration with Kennedy, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) in which Kennedy goes head-to-head with Alabama Governor George Wallace over the issue of integration.
By Andrea Passafiume