"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"
-Joseph Welch to Sen. Joe McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings
Joseph Welch's admonition to Senator Joseph McCarthy has long since entered into the annals of American lore, but I suspect most people don't know the precise circumstances that led to Welch's memorable statement. Tailgunner Joe was doing what he had always done: accusing another man of being a communist. In this case, his target was a young lawyer named Fred Fisher who served in Welch's law firm. The accusation was irrelevant; Fisher wasn't even involved in the current hearings, but that didn't matter to the junior Senator from Wisconsin. He huffed and puffed, piling innuendo on top of innuendo until Welch had finally heard enough and delivered his now famous words, words so apt, so succinct, Welch must have rehearsed them ahead of time. For McCarthy, the accuracy of Welch's stinging rebuke was nowhere near as important as the fact that it was spoken live in front of millions of viewers.
From April 22-June 17, 1954 the nation was transfixed by the spectacle of the Army-McCarthy hearings. Sen. McCarthy had finally taken on an opponent big enough to fight back: the Army itself. The actual dispute is so trivial and bizarre it almost defies belief. According to the Army, McCarthy and his right-hand man Roy Cohn pressured the Army to grant special favors to a private named David Schine. Schine had been allowed to ride in the front of transport vehicles, to get his shoes professionally polished, etc. McCarthy, in turn, accused the Army of holding Schine hostage in order to impede his office's investigation of alleged communists at high levels in the military. The escalating squabble prompted a Senate investigation which was televised live and drew a huge audience.
"Point of Order!" (1963) is a film cobbled together entirely from kinescope recordings of the Army-McCarthy hearings. Filmmakers Emile de Antonio and Dan Talbot distilled nearly 200 hours of broadcasts into a taught, gripping documentary that is both hilarious and chilling. Aside from a brief introduction at the start of the film by de Antonio, the film features nothing but the footage of the hearings: no narration, no interviews, nothing but what the television cameras recorded. This does not mean, however, that "Point of Order!" was not significantly reshaped by the filmmakers.
De Antonio (who takes an "Editorial Director" credit on the film) called his movie "the theater of fact." Theater is an apt term. Everyone involved was aware of the presence of the cameras and played to them at every moment. Both McCarthy and Welch relied on a brand of cheap populism, and constantly appealed to the "common" American. Chief consul Ray Jenkins even began each day's proceedings by summarizing the previous day's events "for the benefit of those who tuned in late."
The film focuses on a few of the key mini-dramas which erupted during the proceedings. One of the most surreal is a battle over a photograph McCarthy introduced as evidence. The photo showed David Schine with an army officer: proof, according to McCarthy, that the officer was friendly with the private. Welch pointed out the fact that the original photo was actually a larger group shot, and McCarthy had cropped the photo to make it appear the two men were alone. Watching both McCarthy and Roy Cohn attempting to deny that the photo was doctored will remind viewers of Bill Clinton at his "that depends on what the definition of ‘is' is" best.
The title refers to McCarthy's constant outbursts during the proceedings in which he claimed a "point of order," a term which meant nothing in the Senate but was simply an excuse for him to interrupt every speaker, not just the Army's attorneys but the Senators on the committee as well. The documentary is a testament to McCarthy's overweening arrogance; at one point, he even attempts to place himself above President Eisenhower in the pecking order: "Presidents come and go," he claims.
De Antonio shapes his material into a tightly-crafted narrative in which McCarthy repeatedly embarrasses himself in front of a national audience. Even the Senators realize he is a lost cause and trip over each other in their efforts to distance themselves from the once-loved Tailgunner. The film concludes with Senator Stuart Symington storming out of the chambers as McCarthy lobs empty challenges at him. There were actually weeks of testimony left after this crucial moment, but the Senator had already plummeted off the cliff. De Antonio cuts from this shot to one of the empty Senate chamber, symbolic of the number of supporters McCarthy now had left. But the Senator's whining voice still plays on the soundtrack. Like some huge, dumb beast, McCarthy has already been killed but his body continues to flail helplessly.
By constructing a film entirely out of "found" footage, de Antonio created a landmark achievement in documentary filmmaking. De Antonio did not want to employ a narrator to tell the viewer what to think; rather, he preferred to let reality speak for itself. As "Point of Order!" proves, reality is both inherently rich and ambiguous. Most viewers simply see the film as evidence of McCarthy's arrogance, but de Antonio felt it served as witness to the shady behavior of everyone involved, including Joseph Welch and the Senators on the committee. For de Antonio, the only heroes were the television cameras themselves.
We can tease out other conclusions from the footage as well. Witness the number of times the Senate audience erupts in laughter when McCarthy attempts another ludicrous accusation or another speaker take a cheap shot at the Senator. The audience hardly seems to be trembling in fear of the mighty Tailgunner; he was already a laughing stock and the hearings were simply his final "outing" in front of the nation.
De Antonio's record of the events proves more vital with every revisionist attempt to rehabilitate McCarthy's image. In her book "Treason," Ann Coulter argued that McCarthy was really an American hero who was vilified by a liberal conspiracy. Since Coulter also once claimed that women were too stupid to vote, we could dismiss her claims as the ramblings of an ill-informed demagogue, but even some legitimate pundits have leapt to the Tailgunner's defense in recent years, citing evidence that Communists really had infiltrated government agencies in the 1950s. That there was a legitimate Communist threat is both true and irrelevant. McCarthy's tactics were inexcusable by any rational standard; innuendo and histrionics do not constitute a legitimate national defense. "Point of Order!" provides an enduring glimpse of the true nature of this rough, slouching beast. Perhaps his influence wasn't as great as we have been led to believe, but that does not change the fact that the man was a drunk, a bully, a coward and, above all, a national disgrace.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The kinescope recordings are of mediocre quality, of course, but the image quality is acceptable.
The audio quality is also mediocre, but all the dialogue can be heard clearly enough. English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearings support the audio.
The DVD lists a "Commentary Track" by Emile de Antonio, but since he died in 1989, this wasn't something recorded for the DVD. Rather, the "commentary" is really an audio recording taken from reel-to-reel master of a series of 1978 interviews conducted by author Warren Green. De Antonio's discussion of the film is fascinating, especially when he discusses his frustration with critics who only saw the film as an anti-McCarthy vehicle.
"Point of Order!" was de Antonio's first film. Its remarkable financial success helped him launch a unique career. One of the few openly Marxist American filmmakers, de Antonio produced films of informed and passionate political awareness. His films were highly didactic and seldom indulged in any of the stylistic flourishes common to documentaries today. "In the Year of the Pig" (1968) is possibly the finest Vietnam documentary ever made, and his scathing satire of Richard Nixon, "Millhouse: A White Comedy" (1971) served as a model for many of the leftist documentaries to follow. Few political filmmakers can claim to be as articulate and engaged as Emile de Antonio, a true American original.