Charles Guggenheim (25 cents)

Charles Guggenheim got his start as a film maker in St. Louis; I remember his name from my high school days, when the brother of one of my friends started to work with him. He made a large number of documentaries over the years, and I don’t remember having seen any of them.

Until today, that is. I was a volunteer at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, having learned yesterday how to tear tickets in two, hand out surveys, and look like I am really pleased to see everyone who comes to the show.

Today’s noontime movie had very few attendees, so in addition to performing my tasks, I actually watched the films. They were two documentaries by Guggenheim, made after he had moved to Washington, one about John F. Kennedy and one about Robert F. Kennedy. I don’t know much about the JFK film, but the RFK film was made shortly have Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and was shown at the 1968 Democratic convention. It also won an academy award.

It was probably a mistake to show the two films (each about 30 minutes in length) together, only because they were so similar in the way they were structured, and because even some of the lines sounded close to the same. The major difference was that there was no musical sound track on the John Kennedy film, and overly martial sounding track on the Bobby Kennedy film.

They were in black and white; they involved news clips, and still photos, and they told their stories very well. They both went through the Cuban missile crisis, and the civil rights battles in the south. The JFK movie talked about the presidential campaign in more detail, not unexpectedly and about Kennedy’s Catholicism as an issue, and the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries. The RFK movie talked about the assassination of JFK, and of Martin Luther King, and the toll that each took on Bobby Kennedy.

Neither film dealt directly with the assassination of their subjects. The John F. Kennedy film ended quite abruptly, with a movie of Air Force 1 on the way to Dallas, followed by a black screen that simply announced “On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated”, followed by the credits. The RFK movie, I was pleased to see, did not show anything that happened that night at the Ambassador Hotel. You simply saw photos of Bobby Kennedy, while you were listening to younger brother Teddy give what sounded like a eulogy.

How different the country was in the 1960s from what it is today. Yet how much the same the world seems always to be.

I don’t know how often these films are shown, but they would be good teaching tools for high schools today, and would generate a lot of healthy conversation. I was thinking, as I saw people who I could recognize immediately (oh, Pierre Salinger, Robert McNamara, Howard K. Smith, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, and many more), how little people even ten years younger than I am would know about them.


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