Briefly glimpsed in Good Night, and Good Luck, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s self-destructive demagoguery first got the full-spectacle treatment in Point of Order, radical filmmaker Emile de Antonio’s engrossing compilation of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Less documentary than distillation, the film compresses nearly 200 hours of footage into 97 minutes, giving a best-of view of the events that marked the beginning of the end for the belligerent commie-hunter. The dreaded, innuendo-lubricated bullying of the early 1950s’ witch hunts hit a wall when the U.S. Army charged McCarthy and lackey Roy Cohn of pressing officers to give Private David Schine, Cohn’s friend and lover, special treatment when he was drafted. The senator unwisely countercharged that the Army was helping the expansion of the “red world,” so matters were brought to the fore (and, more importantly, to the front of TV cameras) for an extended inquiry that, through de Emilio’s editing strategies, emerges as both claustrophobic and cleansing.
By pruning away at the raw footage of CBS kinescopes, de Emilio has given the material the compact structure of drama, and it’s easy to read the film as the story of an ogre who ate himself to death, taking with him a decade’s worth of evil. In fact, de Emilio, later to craft such corrosive works as the Vietnam War tract In the Year of the Pig and the Nixon essay Millhouse, scarcely lets anybody off the hook within this enclosed political arena. The most celebrated moment of the hearings, when Army counsel Joseph Welch chastised McCarthy for his “cruelty” and “recklessness” after he tried to smear a member of his staff with accusations of Communist links, is routinely singled out as a moment of old-school decency battling it out with (and silencing) reactionary fascism, yet Point of Order remains awash in shades of gray. More than a mere showdown between good and bad politics, the hearings come to stand for a system slowly realizing its own potential darkness, with McCarthy, Cohn, and the other participants coming off as more or less extreme outgrowths of a political organism interested mainly in the control of lives and the elimination of any hints of “subversion.”
Contrary to the initial impression of “artlessness,” de Emilio’s use of raw footage actually accentuates theatricality, from the opening “cast” roll-call to the division of the film into “plot point” segments (“The Army’s Charts,” “President Eisenhower Intervenes,” “A Letter from J. Edgar Hoover”). Far from anonymous, the TV cameras are intensely felt throughout as not merely a recording instrument but a draining device, the blasting light prodding each participant for the truth. Clueless to the new medium, McCarthy self-circuits in the long run—he fidgets, sweats, and snickers at his own flaccid puns and slurs, and launches unfounded attack after unfounded attack while an exasperated Cohn lifts his eyes to the heavens. More than anything, he exposes himself. Welch, meanwhile, knows the TV lenses are there, and gives just enough of his ornery heroism to hook the crowds, modulating the outrage and turning the examination of a cropped photo into irresistible vaudeville by sheer timing—a natural performer, as Otto Preminger richly understood when he cast Welch as a judge in Anatomy of a Murder. McCarthy’s bullying exploitation of national fears could not be more timely, though Point of Order is also a pioneering work in its portrayal of politics as mastery of the media. It’s not for nothing that de Emilio in the end locates McCarthy’s fall as the ultimate loss of audience, threats barked at the chamber as the crowd disperses—the sequence itself a self-conscious manipulation of existing texts, with only the unmanned TV equipment ultimately left in the empty frame.