CRISIS: Behind a Presidential Commitment

1963; by Robert Drew; 52 mins

A bolder, much more confidently made documentary from Drew Associates with better sync-sound and more clarity and accuracy with the cameras of Richard Leacock, James Lipscomb, D.A. Pennebaker and Hope Ryden. Perhaps because they were given unprecedented access to the inner workings of the White House, they naturally upped their game. However, they had also not really stopped working since their 1960 experiment, Primary, thus, the quality of this film and it’s makers is far superior.

Robert Drew gained the approval of JFK and was allowed to film inside the White House, giving us Adventures on the New Frontier. He then wanted to film the President dealing with a crisis and in ’63, he got one! A constitutional crisis which could affect social change happening across America, specifically concerning Civil Rights. Democratic State Governor George Wallace threatened to personally stand and block the doors of the University of Alabama, barring the way for it’s first two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Wallace himself is an interesting character, clearly seeing complete justification in his decision to keep Alabama segregated and receiving much support from the white folks in his constituency. This was a public violation of Civil Rights by a leading politician. John and Bobby Kennedy would have to decide within 30 hours whether to publicly arrest Wallace for this or to use more alternative means to get the students into the University.

Drew Associates had tried to jettison as many traditional documentary techniques as possible, so as to present events as uninfluenced by editorialising as possible. Here, though, there is a lot of narration (courtesy of Lipscomb) but it does feel helpful because the story is darting from one end of the country to another and there are a lot of characters coming in and out of the unfolding circumstances. The narration is a prop, setting up certain points of the day and then allowing the footage to tell it’s story – and to very suspenseful effect.

It is exciting to watch the Kennedys in a room debating what to do about this rebellious Southern Governor. It is the possibly first time that the general public could watch, in intimate detail, the mechanics of history being put into action. The big close-ups on the President are so intriguing and almost mesmeric if only for the admittedly superficial fact that… it’s John F. Kennedy! That iconic man! One of the most recognisable faces of the 20th century. Except here, he is not just an icon but a workaday politician, albeit, a very, very extraordinary one. Tragically, less than a month after this documentary was broadcast, Kennedy would be shot dead in Dallas.

It’s Vivian Malone who really stands out, though. How staggeringly mature she seems in the face of historical events, bearing in mind, she was only 20. She had to be aware of the significance of what she was doing and yet is level-headed, concerned but not hysterical and otherwise quite chipper. Maybe the camera didn’t see everything but hats off nevertheless!

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One thought on “CRISIS: Behind a Presidential Commitment

  1. Pingback: THE GREAT SILENCE | READING FILMS

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