Desson Thomson Recommends

Three documentaries that show us American politics in its purest form: as a contact sport.

Primary (1960, 57 minutes) -- Richard Drew ushered in the age of instant news with this landmark film. With a team of cameramen (all of them destined for further documentary glory) that included Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker, he followed the shirt-sleeve presidential campaign of a young senator, name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Drew and his team capture Kennedy as he works to defeat rival Hubert Humphrey in the 1960 Democratic primary in Wisconsin. It's the first close-in, day-to-day portrait of a modern political leader, and it's as exciting to watch now as ever. It has been released on DVD with the equally auspicious "Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment" (64 minutes), which documents the face-off between Kennedy and George Wallace over the governor's refusal to allow black students into the University of Alabama.

The War Room (1993, 95 minutes) -- Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for president had to put out a succession of fires along the way to the White House: Gennifer Flowers, Inhaling, Going to Moscow, the Draft Letter and Slick Willie. This extraordinary documentary, shot by Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, captures the loopy, quixotic spirit among the Friends of Bill from his first primary in New Hampshire to the acceptance speech at Little Rock. It also shows the emergence of Clintonistas James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who carved enduring careers out of this era.

A Perfect Candidate (1996, 105 minutes) -- The battle over a Senate seat between Virginians Charles Robb and Oliver North is about negative advertising, demagoguery, flip-flopping, cynical manipulation of public opinion, shameless lying and an abject refusal to introduce substance into a campaign. It's America at its finest. R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor's fly-on-the-wall film introduces us, too, to Mark Goodin, North's smart operative, who understands the issues, knows his trade and is disarmingly witty about the whole crazy process.

"Primary" follows JFK during his 1960 Wisconsin campaign.