A suspenseful John F. Kennedy documentary now out on DVD

When Life reporter Robert Drew approached John F. Kennedy in 1960 about making a short documentary on his Wisconsin presidential primary run, he promised a new solution to an old problem: How does a reporter act as a fly on the wall, observing and recording his subject, without turning into an elephant, pen in hand, making the room self-conscious?

How does he capture an event as it would happen if no reporters or cameras were present? “A theater without action,” Drew proposed. “A play without a playwright.”

Art culled from reality.

He pitched to Kennedy a documentary style far unlike the stagy TV sit-down chats that relied on interviews to tell a story and passed as nonfiction storytelling in the 1950s.

He and cinematographer Richard Leacock would carry a small camera and a sound recorder, rather than the trails of cords and huge klieg lights usually needed.

This unobtrusive new method, Drew insisted, would “drop word logic and find a dramatic logic in which things really happened.”

Amazingly, it did, more or less. While shooting that first film, “Primary” (Docurama, $24.95) – long difficult to find on video, now newly released on DVD to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s death – Drew and his crew of soon-to-be-legendary-directors created cinema verite.

Editor D.A. Pennebaker would go on to profile two seminal late-20th-century figures with the Bob Dylan film, “Don’t Look Back,” and the Bill Clinton campaign movie, “The War Room.” And Albert Maysles would later make “Gimme Shelter,” the Rolling Stones documentary. Less directly, four decades later, their innovations would serve as a rough blueprint to be perverted and dismantled and transformed into reality TV.

But at the beginning, cinema verite was beautiful to behold: a portrait of a place and a time and a man told through keen observation rather than just another interview. And the freshness of that approach still comes through in “Primary.”

We hover just over the head of Kennedy as he passes through a crowd, and sit at Jackie’s side as she smiles flatly though her umpteenth rendition of “High Hopes.” His stump speeches are heartbreakingly elegant, but you can see him coasting through the room on his movie-star wattage.

Meanwhile, across town the relative munchkin Hubert Humphrey plays the underdog to a scary hilt. He barks at farmers in a basement meeting hall. Drew shows a kid not paying attention and empty seats, then an audience slowly connecting to the bitterness and rage in Humphrey’s squeak.

Decades later, we know the eventual result of those primaries, and still, surprisingly, “Primary” is completely a work of suspense. Even more thrilling is Drew’s follow-up, “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment” (Docurama, $24.95). Happy with the results of “Primary” – and quite savvy about how the camera can become a tool of posterity – Kennedy allowed Drew and Pennebaker into the Oval Office in June 1963, just as Alabama Gov. George Wallace was preventing two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama.

Again, the history is familiar (I hope), but you don’t know the way Kennedy yanked at his cheek and stared into space. Watching the standoff unfold, from multiple perspectives, is almost quite literally to watch as a fly on a wall. A few months later, Kennedy was assassinated, of course, and that awful knowledge hovers over “Crisis” like an afterword, unwritten and eventual.