THE TRIALS OF ALGER HISS is a biased but involving examination of the sensational trials that ended the illustrious career of the former Roosevelt aide and rocketed Richard Nixon to political prominence. Director John Lowenthal weaves together interviews of key participants with newsreel
footage from the period to recount events that brought about Hiss's conviction.
Robert E. Stripling, former chief prosecutor of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), explains that the committee came into being in the 1930s to investigate the German-American Bund, but soon turned its sights on Communists. Alger Hiss describes his early years in politics, how he
and other young, middle-class men committed themselves to New Deal programs that benefited Americans suffering from the Depression. They also championed Roosevelt's anti-Fascist foreign policies. Hiss rose through the Roosevelt administration, ultimately serving as the chief American organizer of
the Yalta Conference.
In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor for TIME magazine, appeared before HUAC and testified that Hiss was an active Communist while working in the US State Department. While Hiss denied the charge and claimed under oath that he did not know Chambers, he later acknowledged that he did, but
under a different name. HUAC member Richard Nixon led a vigorous investigation, using evidence obtained from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to have Hiss indicted and tried for perjury. The first trial ended in a hung jury, but the second resulted in conviction, and Hiss was imprisoned.
In contemporary interviews with the trials' jurors, Lowenthal presents new evidence--including FBI memos--which casts doubt on the prosecution's case against Hiss. Jurors express great concern over what they're shown, and say that they may not have found Hiss guilty if it had been presented at
Asked his opinion about the American criminal justice system, Hiss states affirmatively that it's the best in the world, although it's not immune to manipulation. While he holds Chambers and Nixon responsible for his persecution, he believes that Chambers was not mentally responsible for his
actions. Nixon, on the other hand, was a political opportunist. Asked why he continues to fight the conviction, he says, "I was wronged, and I'm going to get that changed."
More than a history of the most controversial case of its era, THE TRIALS OF ALGER HISS sets about to vindicate its protagonist. Director Lowenthal clearly views Hiss as a victim of a ruinous combination of anti-Communist hysteria and the red-baiters who seized upon it for political gain. He does
a creditable job of manifesting the hostile period in which Hiss was prosecuted. Histrionic newsreels of the day shout of the advances that are being make in weeding Communists out of the government, and other pieces of archival footage show Washington stalwarts speaking in stentorian tones of the
importance of defending America from Soviet aggression. The high drama of the trials themselves is cleverly evoked by the manner in which Lowenthal edits together interviews, rapidly cutting between surviving participants as they comment upon climactic moments.
Lowenthal slants the film in Hiss's favor at the outset by listing in a credit at the film's open "those who declined to be interviewed for this film." Among them are Esther Chambers (Whittaker's widow) and Richard M. Nixon, and the implication is that these people did not want to be confronted by
the filmmaker. But Lowenthal's faith in Hiss's innocence limits the quality of his argumentation. For example, a key part of Hiss's defense in explaining why he did not recognize Chambers is that Chambers had changed so greatly in the 11 or so years since he (Hiss) has last seen him. For all the
material that Lowenthal has amassed, it's curious that he fails to include a photo of Chambers from the time in question so that viewers may gauge for themselves the validity of Hiss's claim. Lowenthal also implies, unconvincingly, that Nixon's involvement is prima facie evidence that Hiss's
trials were unfair (the film was shot in 1977-78, when the Watergate scandal was still recent).
In spite of the argument that Lowenthal makes, it's unlikely that THE TRIALS OF ALGER HISS will change anyone's view of Hiss's guilt or innocence. The film's true value lies in the ample documentation and analysis it offers of a case that continues to provoke heated discussion half a century after
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