When Emile De Antonio’s Point of Order! appeared in 1964, it had the impact of a recent historical event distilled to its essence. De Antonio had taken 188 hours of television kinescopes of the U.S. Army-McCarthy hearings, held in the spring of 1954, and edited them down to a concise and dramatic 97 minutes, eliminating much of the argumentative minutiae and bringing to the foreground the dramatic meltdown of one of this country’s most dangerous and damaging demagogues.
Now, a half century later, the Cold War political culture may seem a little obscure to younger viewers, but the impact of the film is undiminished.
The hearings came about when Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who had long maintained that communists and “other subversives” had infiltrated all branches of our government, turned his attention to the U.S. Army.
The Army defended itself, saying that McCarthy was threatening it with false accusations because it had refused to give special treatment to a friend of McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn. McCarthy’s said this was nonsense and claimed the Army was afraid of what he might reveal.
The hearings were meant to get to the bottom of the charges and countercharges, resulting in a compelling morality play with a surly villain in McCarthy and an appealing hero in the special counsel for the Army, Joseph Welch. As McCarthy drones on in the pompous, hectoring manner of a pastor who pities his congregation for their ignorance, the older Welch has the disarming, homespun veneer of a simple seeker of truth, a bit comical, yet trustworthy.
Welch is almost like a character from central casting, and at one point McCarthy questions his sincerity, accusing him of acting for the benefit of the spectators. (Welch later played the judge in Anatomy of a Murder, garnering a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor.)
McCarthy is totally lulled by Welch’s folksiness and irritated by his persistent questioning, specifically in regard to a doctored photo and bogus letter that McCarthy presents as evidence. Confident, McCarthy moves in for the kill, attacking one of Welch’s associates for past “communist front group” ties. Welch’s response is a classic piece of extemporaneous rhetoric, the famous “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” speech. The attack on McCarthy’s character is delivered in a manner that’s so effective, even the opportunistic Cohn looks ashamed.
Point of Order! presents in digestible form possibly the first time that television played a significant role in American politics. Aside from that it’s a hell of a story and a cogent reminder that even in the land of the free it’s possible to gain power through fear.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Oct. 25, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].