Point of Order (1964, Emile de Antonio)
If there’s such a thing as an important movie, it’s this. That’s not strictly an Americanized viewpoint. In much the same way that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, likely experiencing all manner of awards buzz by the time you read this, captures something crucial about the nature of politics itself, this remarkably engrossing documentary uncovers not just the insular and strange yet potentially earth-shaking effects of petty deal-making and suspicion within Washington, but the darker corners of human nature that are potentially inherent to positions of power. Point of Order isn’t a deliberate piece of cinematic art in any respect; de Antonio created it after the fact, of course, whittling hours upon hours of Kinescopes, transmitted across live television during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, down to a ninety-minute fire-breathing examination of the system being abused by one Joseph McCarthy, then gaining its senses and swallowing him whole.
You could argue that the film adds little to what already existed; the hearings themselves in their complete form are a vital historical document, and the crafty cameramen captured, more than likely by accident, a strikingly odd cross section of humanity with the alternately cruel and empathetic but always unforgiving, unadorned lens of the television camera. These images aren’t pretty, never once. But they’re as telling as anything you could read about McCarthy’s entire career, of the Red Scare, of the 1950s in America, of the birth of TV as communications medium, of how Congress works and what it does. Emile de Antonio’s grand achievement is, without any embellishment and strictly by wielding the immense power of the cutting room, to reveal through editing the essence of what happened in those two historic months: the unraveling of a giant, rendered in easily comprehensible and uncluttered cinema vérité.
Perversely, Point of Order also scores as fire-breathing entertainment, at least for those with a more than passing interest in this era of American history; it’s easily as potent as George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, if not more so. As a direct result of de Antonio’s meticulous organization and imposition of structure, using sparse title cards (and no narration whatsoever) to introduce key elements in the unfolding of the hearings — the doctored photograph, a forged letter from J. Edgar Hoover, botched testimonies, and boorish character assassinations — he gives this sprawling nightmare a beginning, middle and end while revealing central absurdities of government. Senators waste time making jokes about homosexuality, Roy Cohn shiftily diverts attention from his non-answers, and McCarthy declares everyone who breathes to be a communist. Even the basis of the hearings, the ridiculously overbearing special treatment Cohn wished to be afforded a friend of his in the Army and the nonsensical defensive posture Cohn and McCarthy’s camp took after being called out on it, is hilariously silly. The film isn’t lacking in humor, but it’s the humor, inevitably, of despair.
It’s difficult to convey how fascinating Point of Order turns out to be, and if you examine its mechanics it seems to be largely a result of its concentration upon three central personalities: McCarthy, Cohn, and Army Special Counsel Joseph Welch, later to take an acting job as the easygoing judge in Otto Preminger’s great Anatomy of a Murder. Cohn’s darting eyes and careful, deliberate, sycophantic speech render him both the most obvious crook in the room and the most cunning, calculating and ham-fistedly loyal figure in McCarthy’s circle. Cohn had been working as a counsel for McCarthy since 1951 and the pair’s dead-eyed, perpetually suspicious us-against-the-world posturing would be adorable if they weren’t so deadly. Welch, meanwhile, is positioned as the cantankerous hero of the picture, the man whose gradual appreciation of McCarthy’s desperation and evil acts unfolded in live television’s first and greatest true catharsis. When the gallery applauds his “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” speech — a routing that still echoes down through the ages — you have to restrain yourself not to join them.
But McCarthy is of course the grand specter of all of this, a looming and sad figure on the verge of what seems like a paranoid insanity. This film is the best way to understand him, placed in a hot seat with greatest pressure, slowly losing his grip on everything and working, all bluster and sweat, to retain the cachet he’s received with years of false accusations by creating more lies and spinning more webs until he’s a man lost in his own maze — a living ghost. This is scarcely a lofty or literary description so much as an adequate synopsis of the drama playing out on his confused, clamoring face; Point of Order tells the man’s entire story without having to zoom out past a single key experience in his life. As breathtaking as McCarthy and Welch’s legendary confrontation is, spurred by another of McCarthy’s wild thin-air declarations that one of Welch’s former staff members was a communist, it’s what comes after that is most narratively transcendent. The gallery empties, everyone (Welch included) begins to murmur and prepare to leave, to prepare to move on with life without McCarthy in tow, as he continues to spout off endlessly in his seat, now visibly disturbed and more emphatic than ever, talking of lists and commies and the big secrets he must reveal. He drones on until he’s nearly the only person left in the room.
Why is Point of Order so relevant today? It’s simple enough to draw two parallel lines to the way we receive our news today, for this was the first time the news entered the American public’s home in real-time, and to the increasingly public nature of the corruptibility and knee-jerk jingoism within the U.S. government. It’s not a broad stretch to see Richard Nixon’s final desperate months in office in McCarthy’s panicked expressions; it’s even less difficult to hear Karl Rove and Dick Cheney in McCarthy and Cohn’s smug disregard for truth. There’s an inherent optimism to this tightly packed and thoroughly engrossing film, of course, in the sense that Welch wins that last war of words… but after all these years, there’s still a little man in a big room ranting, and we continue to pay the price in human lives, literally and otherwise.