Tribeca Movie Review: A President to Remember

An excellent execution of cinema verite’ by the man who invented the concept.  Although the facts are well known, the tone and body language of the most famous president of the 20th century tell a story all their own

Many of us remember those days of Camelot and President John F. Kennedy who was martyred before he had a chance to make too many mistakes.  We also remember his glamorous wife Jackie who went on, after his death, to pursue a purist life of jet-setting amongst the very wealthy.  Told with priceless documentary footage, this is the story of the election campaign and brief administration of JFK.  The camera work mostly consists of shots taken literally at JFK’s side.  Writer/director Robert Drew’s access to the president was phenomenal by any standards.  Kennedy must have been seriously concerned about his place in history.

Drew himself has a history almost as fascinating as Kennedy’s.  On his 19th birthday he became the youngest pilot in the Army Air Corps.  He went on the fly 31 missions in Italy, was shot down and escaped (a story told in his “From Two Men and a War,” Tribeca FF, 2005).  But more central to this film, he invented many aspects of lightweight cameras that would soon become the tools of the trade for the new documentary format of “direct cinema” or American cinema verite’.

In cinema verite’ the narrative is minimal or non-existent and the footage is real and unrehearsed.  The backdrop of the times and events is used as the set and real people engaged in their actual lives are the characters in the film.  In this documentary, Alec Baldwin provides some narrative, but not very much.  There are some places, such as when Kennedy incurs his historic back injury, when the narrative has to be added. 

In the case of that event, Kennedy was on a diplomatic mission in Canada and helped to ceremonially shovel some dirt in planting a tree.  Amazingly enough, the wrong spade full of earth at the wrong time and in just the wrong body position seriously injured his back.  Kennedy would dwell in his soon-to-be famous rocking chair for the remaining days of his life when in the White House confines.

But most of the story is told by the archival footage taken by news reporting agencies coupled with the hand-held shots presumably taken by Mr. Drew himself.  Although the Kennedy story has been told many timers, it has never been told in this precise and realistic a manner.  It goes without saying that the most entertained viewer will already know most of the story.  The value in this film lies in the perspective, not the facts themselves. 

This includes high level briefings with his closest advisors and other behind the scenes shots that are simply unmatched is the frankness and unvarnished realism.  Unfortunately, inside scenes of such colossal errors as the Bay of Pigs invasion are lacking, as is any mention of rumored affairs with Marilyn Monroe and the like.  Presumably this is the price Drew had to pay to get his incredibly access to the president.  He only had the access the president wanted him to have.

Having said that, the film covers the desegregation of the high schools of the south and the tactics used by Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson to achieve that historic milestone.  The candid glimpses of Johnson in the background at various staged Kennedy Camelot events are worth the price of admission by themselves.  LBJ was not a happy participant in the glamorous carryings-on of the rich east coast Kennedy crew.

Other remarkable perspectives include JFK battling religious persecution during his campaign and some of the best shots ever of the soon-to-be president whittling Nixon down to size in the famous televised debates of modern times.

Drew has made at least five earlier documentaries about JFK and some of this footage is re-used in this film.  So all of what we see is not new and previously unreleased.  Even so, the film maker seems to have pulled together all of the right stuff at the right time to make a movie that is well worth the watching.  A must see for history buffs of any political persuasion.

Release: Tribeca Film Festival
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 93 minutes
Country: USA
Language: English

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