Intermittently over the coming months, as we make our way through the 1960s, we will look at the impact of two new developments in the production of documentary films. One reflects the growing influence of television, with its increasingly widespread access to a large audience, its relative inexpensiveness, and its changing technology, which made it easier for filmmakers to shoot in far-flung locations. Although newsreels and documentaries had been part of movie history from the beginning, they were often the products of establishment producers like The March of Time, Office of War Information propaganda films, or produced by studios like Fox or Disney.
The other new tendency was the opportunity for independent polemicists, largely leftist, to use film to educate and try to persuade the public. Building on the propaganda films of Europe in the 1930s (Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi Triumph of the Will, Joris Ivens’s Communist The Spanish Earth, and others), the U.S. government had produced films like Pare Lorentz’s The River, in support of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series in support of America’s war effort. Leo Hurwitz (with Paul Strand) had made Native Land and Strange Victory, but Emile de Antonio’s Point of Order began something new.
De Antonio (1919–1989) had a checkered history ranging from Harvard to stints as a dock worker and a river barge captain. His entry into film was somewhat accidental. At a time when French directors were making a case for cinéma vérité, de Antonio was unabashed in revealing his progressive tendencies with no pretense of objectivity. (In this, he prepared a path for Michael Moore, among others.) In his eyes, “objectivity simply doesn’t exist.” He would argue that where you direct the camera, what cuts are made in the editing room, etc. reflect an individual/artist/director’s choices. Thus, de Antonio is more aligned with auteur criticism than with documentary purists who think they are capturing unadulterated TRUTH in their work, a theory to which he referred as a “lie” and a “joke.”
The idea for Point of Order apparently came from Daniel Talbot, the exhibitor and film distributor, who is a kind of patron saint of New York movie-lovers. The “Army-McCarthy” hearings, a decade earlier, had an enormous impact on television viewers unused to a close-up view of their government’s (dis)function. My friend, Richard Barsam, in his book Nonfiction Film: A Critical History, suggests that de Antonio’s skilful editing and structuring of the raw material is critical of both Senator McCarthy and the U.S. Army, which the Senator said was riddled with Communists. Ultimately, the film, as Barsam points out, “provides a vivid portrait of what happens when power is fueled by paranoia.”
If de Antonio had gone to central casting he could not have come up with a worthier group of performers. Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s legal assistant, accused of trying to get special favors from the Army for draftee G. David Schine, his wealthy friend, could not have been less sympathetic than a hungry zombie on The Walking Dead. Barely seen is Cohn’s associate, the youthful Robert F. Kennedy, still heavily influenced by his father’s right-wing politics. The Army counsel, Robert Welch, is like a good guy out of a Frank Capra movie (think Harry Carey in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), ultimately shaming McCarthy for his recklessness: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, sir, no sense of decency?” (The HUAC/McCarthy witch-hunt has been blamed for numerous suicides, apparently including the father of New York’s mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.) As for Tail-gunner Joe, he remains thuggish, but somewhat inscrutable. Was he simply out to elevate himself, or did he have even a tiny modicum of delusion that there was a genuine “red menace” in the Army or other American institutions? I doubt we shall ever know, and we are left with something akin to A. N. Wilson’s assessment in The Victorians that “politics…does not attract deep minds.” Yet McCarthy was, in some circles, something of what we might today label a rock star. The cover of the current issue of The Nation is a cartoon featuring several (mostly dead) reactionary politicians at a tea party. Of course Tail-gunner Joe is there, but also a contemporary senator whom, some think, looks to him as a potential role model.