Documentary filmmaker Robert Drew has died at the age of 90. Drew was one of the founders of the cinema vérité movement in the United States, using new, light cameras and sound equipment to create a more intimate, “fly on the wall” style of film journalism. Other famous documentarians of the period, including D. A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, and the Maysles brothers, got their start with his company, Drew Associates. Drew himself was involved in scores of documentaries over the course of his career, but he is best remembered for a series of films he made in the early 1960s that followed John F. Kennedy—the first real TV president—from the campaign trail to the Oval Office.
In 1960, Drew produced and directed Primary (1960), an up close and personal look at the 1960 Wisconsin Primary for the Democratic presidential nomination. The contest was between Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, and Drew knew who he wanted for the star of his film. “The first time I saw him stride onto a stage, my heart sank for him,” Drew said of Kennedy. “He was this young, thin, inexperienced local politician, and I thought, ‘My God, how can he put himself up for president?’ After listening to him speak for five minutes, I was on the edge my chair. He was incredibly compelling, and his charisma was basically rooted in how calm and confident he was—and, of course, he was also very good-looking.”
After Kennedy won the election, Drew screened Primary for him and pitched him on the idea of allowing Drew’s cameras into the White House for a few days, to use “a new form of journalism” to create “a new form of history.” The end result was Crisis (1963), a nonfiction political thriller capturing the standoff between the White House and the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, on the occasion of the forced integration of the University of Alabama.
Those films, both of which went on to be selected for preservation as part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry and are still sometimes shown on television, form an indelible record of the Kennedy years. (After Kennedy was assassinated, Drew also provided a coda to the era with The Faces Of November, an award-winning 11-minute film about the president’s funeral.)
As a young man, Drew had served as a fighter pilot in World War II, where he’d met the legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Drew’s wartime experience, his meeting with Pyle, and the impact Pyle had on Drew’s ideas about journalism would form the basis of one of Drew’s last films, the 2005 From Two Men And A War.
After the war, Drew took a job at Life magazine as a writer and photo editor, and began plotting his revolution in how documentaries were made. “At that time,” he said years later, “most film documentaries were verbally based (relying on voice-over narration), and that creates two problems. First, it’s deadly dull, because a lecture on a living medium is always dull. Second, that approach obstructs any dramatic development that has the potential of unfolding. So, I decided to kill the narration and get the candid footage going.”
Drew envisioned a kind of nonfiction filmmaking with the flexible and openness of the best photojournalism, one that would drop narration in favor of the power of the image, and “drop word logic and find a dramatic logic in which things really happened.” It would be more than a decade before technology made the kind of filmmaking Drew had in mind possible.
Drew’s other most notable works include films on Duke Ellington and the young Jane Fonda, and The Chair (1963), about an Illinois death penalty case. The last film he directed was the 2008 Kennedy tribute, A President To Remember.