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Robert Drew's groundbreaking 1960 film Primary is one of the most important and influential documentaries in the history of the medium. A pioneering work in the documentary movement that came to be known as cinéma vérité, Primary follows the young charismatic senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, as he goes head-to-head with established Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey to win the Wisconsin presidential primary in April 1960. Providing a rare glimpse of iconic future president John F. Kennedy on the road to the White House, Primary takes a riveting and intimate look inside the inner workings of the American political system during a time when legwork, handshaking and grassroots networking had more impact on an election outcome than media image and sound bytes.
Producer/director Robert Drew was working for Time, Inc. in the late 1950s as a correspondent and editor for Life magazine. His specialty was the powerful candid still photo essays for which Life set the standard. At Time, Inc. he also helped contribute to the development of new lightweight portable film equipment, building upon ideas he had worked on while on a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. Drew also devoted his energy towards finding an effective way to expand on the compelling stories told by the extraordinary candid still pictures for which Life was famous.
Drew began to realize his vision by first convincing the publisher of Life to allow him to begin making short films to promote issues presented in the hugely popular magazine. With the help of fellow filmmaker Richard Leacock, Drew completed a series of shorts that covered a wide variety of subjects on everything from space travel to bullfighting.
When Drew was ready to make longer more complex films, he decided that his first project would be to follow John F. Kennedy as he competed against Hubert Humphrey to win the 1960 presidential primary election in Wisconsin. Drew was intrigued with the idea that Kennedy, an audacious outsider from a privileged Eastern intellectual background, was taking on Humphrey, who was supposed to be the slam dunk victor in his home base of the Midwestern heartland. Drew wanted to follow both candidates to observe how they handled the grueling pace of this important election campaign.
Before cameras could roll, however, Drew first had to convince both Kennedy and Humphrey to allow him this level of close access. Drew and Richard Leacock flew to Detroit to meet Senator Kennedy, who then invited the two men to fly back to Washington with him so they could talk. It was on the flight that Drew explained how the project would work. He and his hand-picked crew would follow Kennedy for five days straight from sun up to sundown. Kennedy wouldn't have to do anything - just go about his business and forget the cameras were even there.
Kennedy was open to the idea, but wanted assurance that the film would be handled with fairness. Drew told Kennedy that he would just have to trust him. "He gave me a long look," recalled Drew, "and said, 'If I don't call you by tomorrow, we're on.' And he didn't call, and we were on." It didn't hurt his cause, Drew added later, that he and Richard Leacock both had ties to Harvard, which was Kennedy's alma mater.
Drew then got Hubert Humphrey to agree to the same terms, and the film project that became known as Primary was soon ready to commence.
For the filming, Drew assembled a stellar crew that included Leacock as well as Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Terrence McCartney Filgate. Each was highly skilled with camera and/or sound equipment and had been working to develop new and innovative filmmaking techniques. The project would provide an opportunity for the team of forward thinking filmmakers to utilize some of the new portable film and sound equipment they had been working on. Primary would be the first documentary shot where the sync sound camera could move freely to capture events as they were actually happening.
Before they actually began filming, Drew laid down some strict ground rules for the shoot. There would be no interviews with anyone. The crew could not ask anyone to do anything for the camera. No one would be asked to repeat anything. The camera was to be as unobtrusive as possible. They were to simply record things as they occurred with as little interference as possible.
For the five days in Wisconsin leading up to the primary election on April 5, Drew and Leacock divided their time between filming Kennedy and Humphrey while working round the clock with little sleep. The rest of their team was assigned to capture additional footage from both campaigns. It was a style of filmmaking quite unique at the time, both in its conceptual approach and technology.
Drew and his crew were able to intimately capture the ups and downs brought on by the intense demands of the campaign along with the hard work of both candidates and their families, including Jacqueline Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy who skillfully charmed local crowds on behalf of the future president. Both candidates managed to quickly forget about the presence of the filmmakers, who remained as inconspicuous as possible. The cameras captured the different styles of both men - Humphrey's staid traditionalism relating to local farmers with ease, and the glamour of Kennedy, who is often received like a movie star by young adoring crowds. Primary revealed some of the first inklings of the power that aesthetics and media image would hold in the perception of public figures in the age of television.
When Primary was completed, it was not immediately shown on television as Drew had hoped. However, it did impress ABC enough that the network made a deal with Time, Inc. whereby Drew and his associates would create similar films for broadcast television that would go on to be seen by millions of viewers.
Primary also impressed John Kennedy when Drew screened it for him. The film helped establish a good working relationship between Drew and Kennedy which led to more collaborations between them, including Drew's next major documentary Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) in which Kennedy, then President, faced a tense showdown with Alabama Governor George Wallace over the issue of integration. Kennedy would be a favorite subject of Drew for the next few years as he made the ill-fated 35th U.S. President the subject of several more films including Adventures on the New Frontier (1961) and Faces of November (1964).
Primary's unique method of capturing events as they happened with minimal commentary and interference was quickly dubbed cinéma vérité and hailed as one of the most important new developments in documentary filmmaking. Its impact was significant and far-reaching with filmmakers from all over the world emulating Drew's innovative methods. Its influence can still be felt today. The film's success helped establish Robert Drew as a pioneer in documentary cinema and served as a launching pad for the distinguished careers of Drew's colleagues including legendary documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, and Richard Leacock.
By Andrea Passafiume