d. Robert Drew / USA / 60 mins.
Primary is a film caught in a historical vortex. In 1960, upon its initial release, it was a highly informative and bold breakthrough, yet today it feels like a rudimentary film in contrast to our contemporary, over-saturated, ever pervasive media. The film was tremendously influential on the nascent documentary form of cinéma vérité, although at times it's a little too tedious for its own interests.
Overseen by Robert Drew and shot by Richard Leacock and future documentarians Albert Mayles and D.A. Pennebaker, Primary chronicles the hard-slog week before the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary election in which Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts fought each other in the handshake-by-handshake style of politics.
It might sound simple to say, but Primary must ultimately be considered a real treasure for fulfilling a singular purpose: capturing a particular moment and preserving it for future generations. It just turns out that the moment came at a turning point in American life and the process of capturing it revolutionized how Americans would see their potential leaders. It wouldn't have worked in any other election year; it had to be 1960 and it had to be JFK, a man of enduring charisma regardless of your political affiliation. Although the film evenly splits its time between Kennedy and Humphrey, although there is an undeniable aura that it favors Kennedy.
Why? Well, first of all, Kennedy won – not only the state of Wisconsin, but the 1960 election, the respect of the American people, and their remorse upon his death. Secondly, even if Kennedy gets equal time, he looks better in Primary than Humphrey, much like he looked better than his Republican challenger, then-Vice President Richard Nixon. Presidential campaigns changed after Kennedy, who maximized his suave demeanor and good looks to help propel his candidacy through the growing mass media; 1960 was the first year for televised presidential debates, and what Primary shows us is not only how the people in his presence reacted to him but how we, in the theaters or at home, feel about his aura as it resonates in moving images and sound.
As it is, the film doesn't look or sound all that great – even though it's on a relatively new DVD, the equipment Drew and his crew used was the earliest portable cameras available. The picture is fuzzy and the sound is quite shoddy, but if sheer audio and visual quality were the only goal of the filmmakers, ironically Primary would not have worked as well as it does. The close proximity more than makes up for the want of quality. The audience needed to ride in the car with Humphrey, to follow Kennedy as he moved through throngs of people and climbed onto the stage of a packed auditorium, first seeing the man then seeing what he saw.
In terms of its entertainment, Primary captures the audience's attention, and mercifully it's less than one hour long (by the end it does feel not only repetitive but monotonous). The important point is that Drew and his associates brought us closer to our candidates and captured this pivotal moment in American history on film.
26 August 2008
d. Robert Drew / USA / 60 mins.