A movie directed by Stephen Walker
One of the most important political documentaries ever made, POINT OF ORDER chronicles the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Radical documentarian Emile de Antonio assembled the film from over 150 hours of footage into a tightly constructed examination … see full wiki
Point of Order is entirely edited kinescope footage of the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings which went on for 36 days in the spring of 1954. A kinescope was the work around for the inability to record footage at the location—it is literally a camera put in front of a television and recorded from that spot. The quality of the ‘film’ is not good, but it isn’t difficult at any time to see what is going on.
For a little over 90 minutes we are given what appears to be the salient points of the nearly 200 hours of televised footage of the Army-McCarthy hearings. The specific reason for this was not a grilling of the Army by Senator McCarthy. Mr. McCarthy and Roy Cohn were essentially on trial in a hearing held specifically to determine if Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Cohn were guilty of threatening the Army to give special treatment to David Schine, a member of Mr. McCarthy’s investigation team, or if the Army was using Mr. Schine as a “hostage” to avoid having to face the McCarthy hearings. The film opens with the Chair explaining this; from here things seem to proceed in a linear manner. This is an edited film with no narrative, the audience is left to analyze on its own. Despite being a Senate Subcommittee hearing, it has moments of real drama and sincere, if often sarcastic, humor, so it isn’t as boring as it may seem. There are no plot spoilers, so the analysis that follows gives nothing away. Before I get there, I need to say that 4 items are in the film; otherwise, Point of Order would be irrelevant: the edited photograph showing only Schine with Secretary of the Army Stevens—the unedited version had a third party; the faked J. Edgar Hoover memo naming something like 35 subversives but was not read into the record since it was not real; the uber-famous: “At long last have you left no sense of decency” retort, and the ultimate collapse speech/screech Mr. McCarthy affected at the end of the hearings which not only spelled his doom in the Senate, it also showed him as an åss in front of millions of television viewers.
I ask forgiveness in advance for the length of the section below. This is one of my favorite topics so I am perhaps more wordy than even normal for me. Skip it if you believe you have enough information to decide.
First to the bad. There are some serious problems, not many, but each is significant and can be considered to undo the veracity of the film. There is no indication, at all, of the passage of time. Director de Antonio simply does not post dates to the scenes, so we have no idea at all of whether the story is truly linear or if he is gathering the salient points of one witness before moving on. There is enough evidence for either case, but since we do not know, any answer would be a guess. The second is disturbing from a documentary perspective far more than the lack of dates. The editing is at times brilliant in that it captures very tightly controlled emotions in montages, but there is no way to know if the reactions (particularly by Mr. Cohn) occur at the same time as the debate of the Subcommittee members or if they occur at another point and are just moved for dramatic perspective.
If this sort of thing maddens you, then it is best to avoid this film. If you can look past that and see it as a marker in American history where we are fully allowed to see how the system does work even if it works slowly at times Point of Order is worth your time. There are true villains here and there are true protectors. Seldom in the gray world, and the especially gray world of politics, are lines so starkly drawn.
Now to the good. We are a visual country and have been for about a hundred years now; television just made it easier for more of us to need faces with the sound that the radio used to deliver. To be able to see the situation that was the overdue smack-down of a rogue senator who has given his name to mean ‘political witch hunt’. What is most striking about the junior senator from Wisconsin is just how dead he looks except when he has brief bodily tics when he says “Communist.” His brow stays entirely flat; his eyes do not open wide, they do not squint. Eyes and eyebrows are significant components of expression. It was very eerie to watch Mr. McCarthy bring up points of order, some very heated, without ocular expression. His mouth was similarly tight. You couldn’t put a pinky finger through the small opening through which Mr. McCarthy mumbled just barely coherently.
He’s kind of like Hannibal Lecter—you know so many horrible things about him that when you see him slightly disheveled and with very thinning hair awry, he comes across as more pitiable than evil (and this is, all by itself, disturbing).
I am not someone who has heroes. Rather than accept someone as a hero (something that sets you up for disappointment, especially if your credo is cynicism), I have people I respect deeply. Even still, Joseph Welch, the attorney for the Army, would be very close to a hero. Though he practiced in Boston, he still had the small town lawyer about him. Mr. McCarthy often accused Mr. Welch of grandstanding for laughs; I think this is an accurate description and who better than Mr. McCarthy to know. The film shows moments where Mr. Welch sits with his head tilted and resting in one hand—he looks bored in other words. However, I think he might have been playing to the audience a bit, not because he was bored, but because he thought the whole notion of 36 days of hearings over whether a private in the Army got special treatment due to interference from the McCarthy committee or was a hostage to ward off McCarthy investigations into subversives in the Army were patently absurd. Mr. Welch registered something akin to quiet disbelief.
Members of the military, strong men of honor and integrity sat at the witness table and withered under questioning time after time. Members of the Eisenhower administration were able to be truculent because they were given an order to reveal almost nothing because the president covered the executive branch with a blanket executive privilege. So, with the exception of a couple of administration witnesses, the men of the military seemed cowed—this could be as much for how absurd the hearing was as the conflicting notion of chain of command with regards to how to handle themselves in front of this sort of interrogation. The only one who had no fear, and was loaded for bear and buffalo and elk and one rogue senator was Mr. Welch.
By the time of the hearings, Mr. McCarthy had been grandstanding, holding executive sessions (closed door sessions) then explaining to the press afterwards what the Communist threat was and so on. And the accusations were beginning to lose traction with the media. Now he had to sit in a room where he was being bested—people feared him (members of the Army for instance), but not Mr. Welch.
The problem is that the hearing was supposed to be about Mr. Schine only. At some point (the film isn’t clear), the Chair lost some level of control and Mr. McCarthy was able to pull up the whole Communist thing again and again. Mr. Schine had been one of McCarthy’s myrmidons, but when he was inducted into the Army, though he was able to perform some committee work, his orders had him reporting to the standard chain of command and Mr. Cohn or Mr. McCarthy were not part of that chain. So a very tenuous argument can be made to connect Mr. Schine to suspected Communists in the Army.
However, that stopped being true when Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Cohn started talking about the number of subversives in A and H bomb facilities and elsewhere. It is this assertion that led to Mr. Welch’s famous soliloquy. Mr. Welch peppered Mr. Cohn with questions about why, if they knew there were 130 subversives in these defense facilities why they would not be removed from their positions by nightfall. The question, I suppose, will always be whether Mr. Welch did this on purpose to bait Mr. McCarthy or if it was just serendipity.
Either way, Mr. McCarthy tried to come to Mr. Cohn’s defense. He said that Mr. Welch had put forward the name of Fred Fisher to be the third chair assistant to the Army. The rub, which the Chair pointed out, is that the name Fisher was never put forward. The decency comments were fantastic, but I don’t think they were enough to sway a television audience. What I believe did this was what he said before saying “Let us not assassinate this lad further.” He said that he had not, until that moment, judged Mr. McCarthy’s cruelty and recklessness until that time and that he could not forgive Mr. McCarthy; forgiveness would have to come from somewhere else. What made this famous soliloquy so much better to see than just hear is the fatigue on Mr. Welch’s face as he spoke. He was hunched over, obviously furious but also tired that it adds a level of extra contempt.
There is one problem with this scene that I mention above—the edits. While Mr. McCarthy attacks Mr. Fisher, the editor shows Roy Cohn sitting at the witness table not so much rolling his eyes as realizing full on just what a mistake his cohort was making. He seemed to be thinking about strings he could pull to get another position because he knew this one was over. I want to know if these emotions occurred concomitantly with Mr. McCarthy’s attack—if so they show a brilliant but supremely devious mind at work; if not, it seems like editorial cheating.
The finale is also problematic, but wonderfully symbolic. The committee room is going into recess, so people are gathering up papers and chatting while we hear the desperate voice of Mr. McCarthy accusing his nemesis on the committee (Stuart Symington) of turning his back on the fight against Communism. The symbolism is obvious—no one cared any more. What was frustrating is this would seem the perfect time to show the senator in a spell of unmitigated anger.
It takes patience to get through it, but if you like 20th century American history, you should have little trouble enjoying this film.
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