In Good Night, And Good Luck, one of the year's most memorable cinematic villains is played not by a contemporary actor, but a long-dead senator from Wisconsin. When George Clooney decided to use archival footage of Joseph McCarthy, he followed the footsteps of radical documentarian Emile De Antonio, who utilized the famed Red-baiter's sweaty magnetism even more effectively in 1964's Point Of Order.
Constructed entirely with footage the filmmaker bought from a network news division, Point Of Order impressionistically documents the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings that led to McCarthy's downfall. The hearings were ostensibly held to ascertain whether McCarthy and sidekick Roy Cohn improperly used their influence to glean special treatment for Private David Schine, a former member of McCarthy's investigative staff. But that specific abuse of power soon came to symbolize the much greater abuses engendered by McCarthy's infamous Communist witch-hunts. Here, McCarthy is embattled and defeated, his political days numbered, yet he roars against Red-loving enemies real and imagined in the rumbling, dramatic cadences of a traveling preacher. McCarthy's primary foe in the hearings is Joe Welch, the special counsel for the U.S. Army whose bow-tie-clad folksiness masks a brilliant mind and devastating wit. McCarthy and Cohn's stormy confrontations with Welch are edited into political theater at its finesta formidable if mismatched war of wits.
While Point Of Order looked back in anger at what used to be, Peter Watkins' 1971 fake television documentary Punishment Parkalso new to DVDimagines what right-wing terrors the future might hold. Watkins' paranoid fantasy envisions a U.S. in which young convicted dissidents are forced to participate in law-enforcement training exercises that make them prey in a surreal adult version of cowboys and Indians. Shot guerilla-style with a tiny crew, miniscule budget, largely non-professional cast, and lots of improvisation, Punishment Park is unmistakably a product of its timea leftist fever dream of totalitarian oppression. Big chunks of the film are shrill and overheated, filled with outdated slang and didactic denunciations of fascist pigs and their corrupt police state. Yet the absolute conviction and rage Watkins and his untrained but passionate cast bring to the film make it difficult to dismiss or ignore.
There's no winking or distancing irony on display in Punishment Park, which plays its apocalyptic scenario so straight that other countries mistook it for a genuine documentary. And though it was maligned by critics and barely released in 1971, the curtailing of civil liberties and abuse of prisoners following Sept. 11 have made Park seem less hysterical than prescient, affording Watkins the last laugh, no matter how bitter.