"It's the right thing to do, and President Kennedy has said that we're going to do this, because it's the right thing to do."- Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, on the federal intervention to integrate the University of Alabama
Stars: John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, George Wallace
Other Stars: Nicholas Katzenbach, Vivian Malone, James Hood
Director: Robert Drew
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 00h:52m:41s
Release Date: 2003-11-11
DVD ReviewRobert Drew parlayed the good will accrued with the Kennedy Administration with his film Primary into more unimpeded access to JFK—this time, though, not as a candidate, but as President of the United States, and the result is this gripping documentary, first broadcast on ABC in 1963. The crisis in question, occurring in June 1963, is the court-mandated integration of the University of Alabama, and the vow by George Wallace, governor of that state, to stand forcibly in the university's door, preventing the registration of the first two black students there. Crisis may lack the jolt that came with Primary—the same lightning bolt can't strike twice—and if the confrontation never erupts into cinematic fireworks, the drama here is full of moral righteousness and a keen sense of place. A documentarian or a documentary fan could hardly ask for more.
The John Kennedy here is more weathered than the one we met in Primary—the Presidency will do that to you, and his cadence seems more deliberate, more measured; and he seems a little weary as well. In part that's because we see him here in private, and not on the campaign trail; but what's also notable is how vital he still does seem, especially knowing with the benefit of hindsight that in less than six months, he'd be dead.
But JFK is more of a supporting player this time out—our leading man is his brother and Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, marshalling his forces and the many tools at his disposal to see to it that justice is done in Alabama. It's classic Kennedy stuff: the sleeves rolled up, the oodles of children, the unmistakable Massachusetts cadence, the faint glow of American royalty. And he's got quite a dragon to slay, too—the filmmakers got unimpeded access not just to the Kennedy Administration, but to the Governor's mansion in Alabama, and George Wallace is something, all right. He's the very embodiment of the Old South, defending segregation ("I believe that separation is good for the Nigra citizen and the white citizen"), showing off portraits of Civil War generals, all to the strains of Dixie, which the filmmakers couldn't resist putting on the soundtrack. (The Attorney General, in contrast, is scored with The Battle Hymn of the Republic.)
What's truly compelling here are the small things—the seemingly infinite number of phones in RFK's office, for instance, or the huge stuffed tiger that he stares at from his desk. Similarly, as Drew points out in his commentary (see below), his access was extraordinary—even if you're a fan of The West Wing, there's something a little breathtaking in following Robert Kennedy, in one continuous shot, as his car pulls up at the White House, then hustles down the path, and enters the Oval Office through a side door. It's a couple of brothers getting together for a chat; it's also maybe the two most powerful men in the world at the time, fighting back the awful legacy of slavery and segregation.
The central dramatic question—how can the Administration avoid forcibly removing Wallace from the university steps?—doesn't leave much room for Virginia Malone and James Hood, the two students slated to matriculate that day; instead, on the ground, the battle is joined by Wallace's forces and Nicholas Katzenbach, the Kennedys' man in Alabama. RFK and JFK follow most of the proceedings on speaker phone, but it's still gripping—and it's all just humanized and made that much more dramatic when the Attorney General is visited by one of his young children, Kerry, who insists on saying a few words to Katzenbach on the phone. (Kerry is maybe three years old at the time.) The filmmakers skirt some of their own rules just a little bit—they don't ask questions of the subjects themselves, but piggyback on the footage of the Attorney General on Meet the Press, for instance. But that's quibbling, really, and this remains fascinating stuff, especially for those born after the fact. So many of the rights we take for granted, this documentary demonstrates, were very much up for question, just barely a generation ago.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: The transfer looks fair enough; the source print no doubt is full of scratches and took lots of abuse, and wasn't shot to last in the first place, so all of that is apparent on this disc. Again, though, the Robert Drew monogram appears throughout, on the bottom right corner of the screen. It's incredibly distracting, and unwisely included.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Direct cinema doesn't always lend itself to sterling audio quality, and you can hear that here; the President and Attorney General's Boston accents occasionally contribute to some of the confusion. But the transfer introduces little or no new distortions, pop or hiss.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
13 Other Trailer(s) featuring Speaking in Strings, Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Sound and Fury, Brother's Keeper, Sophie B. Hawkins: The Cream Will Rise, Todd McFarlane: The Devil You Know, Go Tigers!, Keep The River On Your Right, Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, Lost in La Mancha, See How They Run, The Smashing Machine
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Robert Drew and Richard Leacock
- Docurama catalog
Also included are brief notes from Drew on the making of the film, and a slew of Docurama trailers, accompanying their catalog.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsAs with Primary, this is another worthy document both of the early days of cinema verite and of the working methods of President Kennedy and his men. Politics these days can seem so often like so much marginalia; this is a reminder that it wasn't that long ago that great men fought principled battles for what's right and best about this country.
Jon Danziger 2003-11-09