Director: Emile de Antonio
If the Soviets were right about editing being the defining characteristic of cinema, then I’ve long felt this was especially true of documentary, which is really about taking raw material and cutting it to shape it in a way that isn’t quite the case even with fiction. This film illustrates that principle in spectacular fashion, comprised entirely as it is of kinescoped TV footage; Emile de Antonio had some 188 hours of the stuff to work with, and it evidently took a few years to actually boil down to its final 97-minute condensation. The footage in question was of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, which played a key role in the fiery destruction of Senator Joe McCarthy’s corrosive political career. I don’t suppose McCarthy’s fixation on communists needs any introduction; suffice to say he bit off a bit more than he could chew when it came to taking on the US Army. The story is all in the Wiki entry so I won’t repeat it; what matters is the film de Antonio made of it, which is far more interesting and less dry than it might sound on the surface. The remarkable thing is how much it felt like a fiction film, despite obviously not being one, but the entire thing was shown on TV and the participants were well aware of this fact; not only were they playing to the people actually at the hearings, they were playing to an audience of up to twenty million at any one time. At times I got the impression some of the people involved were almost acting like they’d seen people act in films; perhaps ironically, the Army’s special counsel Joseph Welch actually scored an acting role as the judge in Anatomy of a Murder on the basis of this “performance”. De Antonio shapes all this business with a pretty strong feeling for the dramatic, too, which kind of adds to the “fictional” feeling; initially feeling a bit random and artless but gradually building until it reaches the famous showdown between Welch and McCarthy (don’t you love how Roy Cohn does everything but outright facepalm as McCarthy refuses to give up on a point after Welch has already torn him a new one?), and culminating with McCarthy’s bitter enemy Stuart Symington getting the final word before McCarthy sputters into irrelevance as proceedings end. De Antonio lets all this footage speak for itself, with his only narration being a concise outlining of the case at the very beginning, though some might argue his loathing of the by-then deceased senator from Wisconsin comes across in his editing choices even without needing to be explicitly said. By the same token, of course, it’s not like McCarthy himself gave him anything better to work with. Amazing.