It was not always thus. In 1960, journalist Robert Drew came up with the idea of following Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy with a movie camera during his run against Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin Democratic primary. But it wasn't the story so much as the way Drew got it that made the project memorable. Drew and crew were equipped with newfangled movie cameras that gave them unprecedented mobility. The result, Primary, was the first of its kind: a freewheeling, fly-on-the-wall documentary with no interviews, no music, no correspondent, and little exposition.
Stacked up against today's documentaries, which tend toward overweening subjectivity and strident polemics, Drew's movies seem like relics. Here, it seems, was the first gaze—the audience granted an intimate glimpse of their leaders, the subjects not yet trained to play to the cameras. Ironically, Drew's innovations would end up killing the very spontaneity he captured. The ubiquity of portable cameras, whose development Drew helped speed along, would eventually usher in the era of media-trained politicians.
Considering his role as one of the godfathers of cinéma vérité, Robert Drew is a curiously obscure figure. Indeed, some cameramen who worked with him, including D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, The War Room) and Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter), have achieved greater fame. A newly released box set of Drew's Kennedy films, Primary and Crisis, offers a vivid reminder of his enduring influence on both journalism and filmmaking—and a poignant testament to the Kennedy mystique.
Click here for a video slide show on Robert Drew's Kennedy films.