Saturday, July 5, 2014

For your July 4th weekend, Lutz Hachmeister's oddball THE REAL AMERICAN: JOE McCARTHY


The very title of this unusual -- in ways both good and bad -- documentary pulls us up short. What does THE REAL AMERICAN: JOE McCARTHY actually signify? That this guy could stand in for the "real" American, and if so, what the hell does that mean? That we're all a bunch of lying, cold-hearted opportunists willing to toss just about anyone (especially Democrats) in front of the bus? Well, maybe. That's pretty cynical. Well, yes, but since the film was directed, co-written and co-produced by a German fellow by the name of Lutz Hachmeister, who earlier gave us The Goebbels Experiment and the restaurant doc Three Stars, a more cynical look at America and Americans just might be in the cards.

Herr Hachmeister, pictured at right, has certainly done his homework concerning our Joe's history and actions, and has even gone a bit further behind of the scenes of our government and military at that time to bring to the fore some information buried more deeply than other films have shown us (including the documentary Point of Order, and a number of narrative movies in which old Joe played a supporting part). While his  "foreigner" status may have goosed Hachmeister to look at things differently, it may also have prevented him from seeing certain things as clearly as he might. Take Ann Coulter's place in all this, for instance. The director interviews Ms Coulter -- whom I consider one of the stupider mouthpieces of the frothing right-wing -- and then uses part of that interview in the film. But does he actually understand who Coulter is and what her place in American society might be? We've heard her on radio occasionally, spouting nonsense and lies -- such as her tirades about Obamacare last fall -- and we've waited for somebody to speak up and deflate the woman's shit balloon. But of course, on these right-wing radio fests, no one ever does. (For the best rendition yet of Ms Coulter, you really must see Thea Gill's interpretation of her in Joe Dante's sublime Iraq War sequence from the Masters of Horror series, entitled Homecoming.)

So here Coulter is yet again, above, spouting off about how "everything you've heard about McCarthy you have to hit the delete button on" (her quote is even used on the back of the DVD box), as though that is what we're about to discover from this documentary. But, hey, we discover no such thing. If anything, we learn even more about what an asshole McCarthy really was, how he consistently lied and pretended and led everyone from other elected officials to the public into thinking that our government was filled with Communist spies, in the process blithely destroying careers and lives along the way.

It is how our filmmaker shows us all this that gives me the most trouble. The Real American: Joe McCarthy is one of those documentaries that uses re-creations -- shown above (that's Joe as a young man) and below, with the would-be Roy Cohn at his side -- to bring to life its subject's story. And while these are well-acted enough, they stand out like the proverbial sore thumb -- in color, with all the 1950 trimmings of sets, clothes and so forth -- constantly calling attention to themselves in the worst way. Since Hachmeister's digging presents some fine archival footage and decent interviews with reporters, old friends of McCarthy, politicians and the like, why didn't he just stick with these rather than doing the "gussy-up" thing with the recreations?

If one is going to do this, do it cleverly and meaningfully like Sarah Polley manages in her excellent doc  Stories We Tell (streamable now on Netflix: click for the link). Shown against the real life footage of McCarthy, his wife Jean, the late Mr. Cohn and others, the actors (above) pale in comparison with their real-life counterparts (below) and don't really look much like them, either.

What the movie does give us, interestingly and well, is the story of how our own government, the CIA, and others were growing ever more annoyed and upset at what Joe was doing and saying, and so finally had to step in to stop it. All this is by far the most interesting of the "new" material the movie has to offer.

The McCarthy era is one that no truly patriotic American (and by that I mean the My country right or wrong: When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be set right variety) would want to repeat. The Bush administra-tion tried to scare us into more of this with its stupid Iraq war and constant terrorism fears (ooooh: today is an orange alert!). It didn't work (not for long, anyway) and shouldn't ever be allowed to work again. We shall see.

Meanwhile, you can see The Real American: Joe McCarthy -- from Corinth Releasing and running 100 minutes -- on DVD by clicking here. It's worth a look and a thought about how this could happen then -- and what to do to make certain it doesn't happen again.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...


You're credibility in this review is completely negated by you're blatantly transparent bias.

James van Maanen said...

And, by the way, Anonymous, your credibility via your comment above is completely negated by your cowardly anonymity.