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Classic Documentaries: Point of Order

Point of Order (1964) is a documentary film compiled entirely from television coverage of the Army – McCarthy hearings in the United States Senate in 1954. For this, his first film, director Emile de Antonio cut down 187 hours of kinescopes of the televised hearings – the first time that a Senate hearing had been broadcast gavel-to-gavel on live television – to a running time of just 93 minutes, using no additional footage, and no narration, but just superimposed subtitles to identify the various participants in the hearing.

Joseph McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, had shot to international fame with his vague and unsubstantiated charges that a vast Communist conspiracy was attempting to undermine the United States government. From 1950 onwards, McCarthy held the nation in thrall with a series of scurrilous accusations, attracting some partisans, but repelling most observers with his smear tactics and fear mongering.  But McCarthy finally pushed the fight one step too far, when he accused the United States Army of knowingly harboring Communists.

More specifically, the Army charged McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn, with attempting to seek special treatment for one of their protégés, G. David Schine, whom McCarthy had employed as an investigator. Striking back, McCarthy countercharged that the Army was preventing Schine from seeking out Communists in the military. The fight was on.

Starting on April 22, 1954, the hearings were televised by the ABC television network on a daily basis, with McCarthy and his staff members battling the Army’s attorney, Joseph Welch. Welch, a graduate of Harvard Law School, patiently led McCarthy through the questioning, and demonstrated to the public not only that McCarthy’s accusations were groundless, but also that his demagoguery was a threat to the nation.

On June 9th, 1954, the 30th day of the hearings, McCarthy made a particularly reckless charge against one Fred Fisher, who worked in Welch’s law office, accusing him of being a member of a supposed Communist “front” organization, The National Lawyers Guild. Welch, finally appalled by McCarthy’s tactics, famously responded to McCarthy that “until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness [. . .] have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

For many, this was the defining moment of the hearings. As McCarthy blustered on, many senators simply got up and walked out of the Senate chambers; the hearings, which had been seen by an estimated 80 million viewers, concluded just 6 days later. A 2/3rds majority in the Senate formally censured McCarthy on December 2, 1954. The hearings effectively brought an end to McCarthy’s career.

DeAntonio’s deft editing of the kinescope footage decisively demonstrates the power of the new medium, and the film itself stands as a commentary on the power of unchecked political power. Point of Order is a one of a kind film, using the raw materials of television to make an indelible historical document, as timely today as when it was made.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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