POINT OF ORDER is a 95-minute distillation of the high points of the 36-day Army-McCarthy hearings conducted by the US Senate in 1954. Although the movie is totally unremarkable as a piece of filmmaking, its contents render it compelling and thoroughly entertaining.
The back-story: By 1954, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had risen to a position of immense power by enflaming and feeding off of the anti-Communist hatred and hysteria that was gripping millions of Americans. An opportunistic scoundrel, McCarthy had built his reputation largely on
a series of unsubstantiated statements accusing America's federal government and institutions of higher learning of harboring hordes of Communist subversives. In early 1954, McCarthy extended his list of Communist-infiltrated organizations to include the US Army. The Army countered with a charge
that the McCarthy smear was based on little more than personal spite. According to the Pentagon, McCarthy was peeved because one of his staff, a young college dropout named G. David Schine, had been drafted, and the Army had failed to grant Private Schine special privileges, despite repeated
pressure to do so from McCarthy's office. Senate hearings into the matter began on April 16, 1954.
POINT OF ORDER includes many of the most memorable moments in those hearings: the brouhaha over a cropped photo of Schine and Secretary of the Army Stevens; the spats between McCarthy and Senator Stuart Symington, confrontations in which the two men's mutual loathing is palpable; McCarthy's attack
on a member of the law firm of Joseph Welch, special counsel for the Army, and Welch's legendary response; several humorous interludes including Welch's explanation to McCarthy of the difference between a pixie and a fairy; the recurring image of McCarthy's chief counsel, the boyish and sinisterly
handsome Roy Cohn, whispering in his boss's ear; the haunting whine of McCarthy's soporific voice--now rising in pitch to emphasize a point, now mocking a sarcastic statement of Welch's ("before sundown you must get these people out of government") with supplementary sarcasm of his own.
A novice filmmaker when he assembled POINT OF ORDER, Emile de Antonio didn't even like movies much, except those made by Marxists, the Marx Brothers, and W.C. Fields. He began his film career by paying CBS $50,000, supplied by a rich liberal acquaintance, for the right to use 188 hours of footage
that the network shot of the hearings. He also agreed to turn over to CBS half of any of the film's future profits. "What I frankly wanted to make was a commercially successful film," de Antonio has said, "and POINT OF ORDER was the first political non-TV documentary after WWII that was successful
financially and played theaters." He also claimed for it the distinction of being "the first full-length political documentary without one line of narration." (Apparently, he had never seen TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.)
POINT OF ORDER is an editing job, pure and simple, and as such, it is not to be compared to the films of Robert Flaherty, Frederick Wiseman, Les Blank, and other major documentarians, whose works are comprised almost entirely of original footage. And unlike the documentaries of Ken Burns, for one,
POINT OF ORDER draws from only a single source for its material. Granted, there was a lot of it. It took de Antonio two years of 70-hour weeks to whittle those 188 hours down to size. What emerged is little different from that which any intelligent editor would have assembled, given the raw
material. Aside from providing the hearings with a beginning and ending that are narratively and thematically satisfying, rather than chronologically accurate, he allowed the material essentially to speak for itself.
POINT OF ORDER can be taken several ways. Many viewers will regard it as a heartening illustration of the system triumphing over an amok maverick who threatened it. De Antonio himself, an American Communist, saw his film quite differently--as an attack not on McCarthy but on the entire American
system. As the people and events portrayed in POINT OF ORDER continue to recede into history, the movie can increasingly be enjoyed simply as superb theater. Few plays or movies have provided the spine-tingling drama of Welch's response to the attack on a young lawyer in his firm: "Until this
moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness....Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
Six months following the hearings' conclusion, the Senate censured McCarthy and condemned his behavior. He died two-and-a-half years later. Two years after that, special counsel Welch regained America's attention when he appeared in a featured role in the movie ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959).
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- Review: POINT OF ORDER is a 95-minute distillation of the high points of the 36-day Army-McCarthy hearings conducted by the US Senate in 1954. Although the movie is totally unremarkable as a piece of filmmaking, its contents render it compelling and thoroughly ent… (more)