Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Emile de Antonio's Point of Order was a lesson unto itself in college classes on documentary film. Cinema veríté was the buzzword of the hour. The idea that through patience and persistence, docu subjects would forget that a camera was present and reveal their true selves to the filmmakers has since been discounted by thousands of hours of 'candid' docus equally as manipulative and false as old-fashioned staged presentations like Nanook of the North. Modern citizens have simply become accustomed to having cameras present, and have adapted their behaviors to include a 'natural acting' mode. Television news bites and reality programming provides all the proof one needs for this: All Lies, All the Time.
By contrast, Point of Order condenses 200 hours of kinescope footage from the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings into 97 edited minutes. The hearings were great drama when televised live but soon faded from the cultural memory. With McCarthy dead and the country engaged in a great liberal-vs.-conservative battle of philosophies, firebrand leftist filmmaker Emile de Antonio licensed hours of near-forgotten kinescope footage from CBS and fashioned this famous record of the 50s demagogue Joe McCarthy.
New Yorker's disc includes an invaluable audio commentary recorded by de Antonio in the late 1970s, explaining how CBS sold him the kinescopes (outright!) for $50,000. Point of Order became a liberal rallying cry against the witch-hunters who still revered McCarthy's memory and were convinced that the media-savvy charlatan had been fighting a real war against Communism. The Army-McCarthy hearings were convened to investigate allegations that McCarthy and his weasley associate Roy Cohn had tried to secure an unearned Army commission for a drafted crony, by making vague threats of retaliation against Pentagon officials that stood in their way.
By this time the alcoholic McCarthy was so puffed-up that he grossly overestimated his influence. Even though the televised hearings gave him the advantage of using his media skills -- bullying, insinuations, sarcastic humor -- McCarthy came up against three big obstacles. First, America got its first extended look at the unpleasant, preening Junior Senator from Wisconsin, who looked more like a boozy, corrupt Broderick Crawford than a champion of Liberty. He was obviously playing cheap games to avoid answering direct questions and using dirty innuendo to attack his questioners. Second, the Army was fed up with McCarthy, having put up with unsubstantiated allegations that the Pentagon was crawling with Communists and fellow travelers. The official Army spokesmen didn't have the telegenic skills to stand up to McCarthy's tirades, so they hired the third big factor in the Senator's downfall, lawyer Joseph Welch, a plain-speaking, unflappable Yankee sage with a voice as trustworthy as Judge Hardy.
Welch didn't cave in or balk at McCarthy's outrageous courtroom tricks, and turned the tide of sympathy against him. Unable to deflect attention by making tiresome points about Army charts, McCarthy was foolish enough to become even more brazen, all but accusing the Army, the CIA, the FBI and even Eisenhower's White House of being the patsies of Communists. Some say it was a stern letter from President Eisenhower that got McCarthy, and others point to senator Stuart Symington's putting the real issue out in the open with the words, "Apparently Senator, you believe that anyone who disagrees with your point of view is a Communist." Desperate, McCarthy revealed his only face card by outing a lawyer in Joe Welch's firm as once having been a member of a liberal organization that he had branded as a Communist front. Welch demolished McCarthy in the eyes of the committee and the country with his response, castigating the senator as a craven villain and reckless ruiner of careers: "Have you no shame? Have you no decency?"
From that point it's all over. After the hearing has been closed we hear McCarthy on the microphone trying to rally indignant outrage, ranting while the audience files out, ignoring him.
McCarthy was also done in by CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, who literally called the phony demagogue out for a TV debate and publicly eviscerated him. McCarthy could only respond with feeble lectures about abstract theories and more unsubstantiated claims of Communist conspiracies. Incredibly, many Americans still believe that McCarthy was undone by New York fellow travelers. The mindset of America in 1954 is easy to see; when a questioner offers the joking theory that perhaps pixies altered a photo to better illustrate McCarthy's case, McCarthy brings up fairies, and then tries to change the subject with the 'news' that he's uncovered homosexual military officers in an unnamed Southern state. There's no general response to the craven ploy, except for various senators to chime in asking McCarthy to clear their particular state of the innuendo. The elected officials make the less-sophisticated Army personnel at the meeting look like idealists.
In his commentary, director de Antonio alleges that CBS offered him licensing rights to footage and outtakes of all of its files on the Kennedy assassination, and then mysteriously withdrew them in a flurry of contradictory excuses. De Antonio later made the fiery anti-Vietnam and anti-Nixon docus In the Year of the Pig and Millhouse. It's curious that de Antonio's so-called radical documentaries are really some of the best accounts of the truth of the politics of those days.
Without any narration to impose what de Antonio called a 'voice of God viewpoint', Point of Order is a completely unbiased record of the Army McCarthy hearings and therefore unimpeachably fair to history. The original CBS camera coverage is politically neutral, leaving little to argue about. It stands as one of the key political documentaries of the 20th Century.
Film fans will recognize Joseph Welch from Otto Preminger's 1959 courtroom thriller Anatomy of a Murder, in which he plays the presiding judge.
New Yorker's DVD of Point of Order presents the 1964 film full frame as intended. Although de Antonio describes the quality as bad, the kinescopes are actually very good, with almost no distortion and a consistently strong signal. Audio is unusually clear as well. This is a fine copy of the film suitable for archival and educational use. New Yorker explains that the exclamation point was added to the main title as a marketing ploy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Point of Order rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary with editorial director Emile de Antonio (compiled from archival sources), Trailer, Liner notes from Emile de Antonio: A Reader edited by Douglas Kellner and Dan Streible
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 28, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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