A Primary on the Horizon

Inside Criterion / FYI — Apr 5, 2016


Today, just as they have for decades, voters in the great state of Wisconsin head to the polls to take part in this year’s presidential primary election, selecting among eager candidates who share the “great dream” of becoming president of the United States (no longer a dream limited only to “millions of American boys”). Last night, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, speaking in Milwaukee, noted that since 1960 every Democratic nominee but one had won the Wisconsin primary. That was the year that John F. Kennedy won in Wisconsin against his rival, Hubert Humphrey—and filmmaker Robert Drew and his team were there as it happened.

Later this month, we’re releasing The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates, a collection of landmark achievements in documentary filmmaking. The first in the set is Primary, which documents the 1960 presidential primary in Wisconsin and was shot on a camera engineered specifically by Drew and his team to allow for sync-sound recording, a feature that made the entire genre of cinema verité possible. In honor of today’s vote in Wisconsin, here are a pair of clips from Primary, showing the two candidates in action.


Humphrey expected his status as a senator from next-door Minnesota would help him walk away with a Wisconsin win, and Primary is particularly good at showing us Humphrey’s folksy charm and down-home demeanor among the farmers of western Wisconsin. As he continued talking to his crowd of impassive Wisconsin residents, Humphrey appealed to his agriculture-friendly record in Washington and claimed that he’d keep farmers’ interests at heart if he made it to the White House.

But what Humphrey did not anticipate was that Kennedy had built up a groundswell of support in cities, largely due to the fact that he had been subtly campaigning—via low-key appearances across the country—ever since the Democratic National Convention of 1956, when he’d come close to being nominated for vice president (that year the nominee was selected by delegates at the convention, and Kennedy lost to Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver). In one of the most famous shots in all of documentary history, Albert Maysles’s camera follows JFK into Milwaukee’s American Serb Hall (host tonight to a post-primary party for Republican candidate Ted Cruz). The scene documents the palpably intense level of adulation that Kennedy had already managed to attract, and which would carry him later that year to the highest office in the country.


Tomorrow, we’re honoring the Kennedy documentaries with our first Criterion Live! event at New York’s Metrograph theater, where Criterion president Peter Becker will discuss the films with legendary documentarian D. A. Pennebaker—who was one of Drew’s filmmakers, along with such other verité luminaries as Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock—as well as Jill Drew (daughter-in-law of Robert Drew and general manager of Drew Associates) and journalist Frank Rich. Stay tuned to the Current in the coming days for details from the event!