Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Serendipity's opposite

Sometimes you are excited to see a film, expecting to really like it, and then are disappointed. It happens. It is the reverse of serendipity, that I wrote about earlier.

Yesterday I saw "The Real American - Joe McCarthy". I was disappointed. The film was okay, but not what it should have been.

The documentary part was well done, what I didn't like was the use of actors and dialogue to 'recreate' scenes from McCarthy's career and life.

This technique is relatively common on television these days and has been used in other documentaries. Generally, I don't like the technique, though sometimes it has worked (and even though I myself have been an actor in such).

When dealing with historical figures, even from the recent past, there are two choices that I believe can work: straight documentary or a 'fictionalized' narrative film.

(A film screening at this year's festival is such an animal: "The Conquest" which deals with Nicolas Sarkozy's rise to the Presidency of France. This narrative film works because you know that you are seeing a 'dramatized' version of the historical facts.

Moreover, a 1977 made-for-tv movie, Tail Gunner Joe, with Peter Boyle as McCarthy received four prime-time Emmy nominations.)

In the case of this McCarthy film, the mixing of documentary and dramatized scene recreation just did not work for me at all, partly because it was not very well done. The scenes felt clumsy and unconvincing. Juxtaposed against real footage (Joseph Welch's denunciation of McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings, for instance) they just came off as lame and unreal.

I am not certain why the director, Lutz Hachmeister chose this technique, but I wish he hadn't.

Those of my generation are very familiar with the McCarthy story, and of course the brilliant "Angels in America" portrayed McCarthy's accessory evil doing, Roy Cohn. That story is disturbing for what it meant - and did - to America. A documentation of the events and circumstances of that time would be valuable not just to those of us who remember the time but to a younger generation that may not be familiar with it. That story can be instructive as we all try to navigate the current political landscape (or battlefield, if you will).

The archival footage and stills and the interviews with a wide range of people about McCarthy would have made a good documentary on their own. The interviews included the likes of Ben Bradlee and Haynes Johnson as well as Ann Coulter with a jaw-dropping statement that Joe McCarthy was a great American hero. We just did not need these recreations. They made the film much less potent than it could have been and thereby not as valuable.

Serendipity does not always happen.

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