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NEW YORK — Capturing the spirit of an artist and the quickly-fading moment in media history when his work could have real nationwide impact, Michael Stevens‘ Herblock: The Black & The White pays homage to the great editorial cartoonist with testimonials from a who’s-who of D.C. journalists and opinion-makers. The smart doc will play great on TV, but fine production values and a broad historical scope would be welcomed in niche theatrical bookings as well.
Born Herbert Block in Chicago, the artist was a tyke in 1918 when he scrawled the likeness of Kaiser Wilhelm on the sidewalk — the better for neighbors to walk all over him. He began getting paid for such cartoons in his teens, won a Pulitzer early on, and (after a stint with the Army during WWII) was recruited by publisher Eugene Meyer, who had bought the Washington Post in a bankruptcy auction and was about to transform it into a great paper. If he wasn’t already, Herblock was soon to be the “most feared editorial cartoonist in the country.”
Stevens gets off to a rocky start, with Rob Mathes‘ grandiose score and an overuse of D.C. icons seeming to introduce a film that will drown in self-importance. His use of actor Alan Mandell to deliver Block’s philosophies occasionally feels stagey, and will confuse viewers who mistake it for actual interview footage shot before his death in 2001.
But the film’s subject and the clear-eyed assessments of its many interviewees quickly redeem it. Marquee-level journalists like Ted Koppel and David Brooks testify to Block’s overall influence, while former Post colleagues (including Ben Bradlee and Gwen Ifill) provide amusing color about what it was like to work near a man who appeared to have no outside life; Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward are especially welcome during discussion of the Watergate period, suggesting that Block intuitively understood the truth of that scandal before they were anywhere near it.
Using plenty of examples of his cartoons, Stevens follows Block as he champions FDR liberalism, opposes the influence of money in politics, and uses his pen to make it impossible to look at Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy without seeing craven villains. (Herblock coined the term “McCarthyism” in a famous comic panel, and crafted an immortal image by subverting the sentiment “I am not a crook.”)
Present-day satirists Jon Stewart and Lewis Black offer appreciations, marveling at what the cartoonist could do with just one picture per day. But although Stevens spends some time with the similarly influential Jules Feiffer, the film offers little sense that Herblock wasn’t the only artist of his type: Mention is made of 19th-century political cartoonists, but not of the peers who competed in other newspapers during the roughly seven decades of Herblock’s reign.
Room could have been made for that useful context if Stevens had omitted a sequence lamenting the state of contemporary news that, while aligned with Herblock’s values, doesn’t concern him directly and rehashes arguments familiar to any viewer concerned enough about the world to be watching a doc about political cartoons.
Production Company: The Stevens Company
Cast: Alan Mandell
Director: Michael Stevens
Screenwriters: Sara Lukinson, Michael Stevens
Producers: Michael Stevens
Executive producers: George Stevens, Jr.
Director of photography: Zoran Popovic
Music: Rob Mathes
Editor: Jake Hamilton
No rating, 94 minutes
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