The Real American: Joe McCarthy: Film Review

Doc-biopic hybrid generates a less-than-satisfying portrait.

Reenactment meets straight documentary in this portrait of the Commie-hunting senator from director Lutz Hachmeister.

Senator Joseph McCarthy is more familiar on the outskirts of movies and film lore -- as the villain beyond the newsroom in Good Night, and Good Luck; as the biggest Commie-hunter who wasn't directly involved in HUAC's campaign against lefty filmmakers -- than he is in the spotlight. Lutz Hachmeister sets out to fix that with The Real American, interviewing those who knew the man and imagining private moments via re-creations starring John Sessions. But despite offering facts and perspectives that will be new to non-history-buffs in the audience, the film never feels definitive and will leave most viewers unmoved. It may find a berth on cable, but is unlikely to perform well in art house bookings.

Those biopic scenes, which find the senator conducting private strategy sessions and wooing the assistant who would become his wife, aim to humanize the man whose name became a synonym for vicious political persecution. They're only mildly successful, the documentarian struggling to coax lively performances from his cast. The attempt to add dimension is more successful when Hachmeister interviews people like James Juliana, who worked on McCarthy's staff: "I'd'a never worked for the guy," Juliana says, "if he'd been as bad as everyone says he was."

Critical interviewees here will admit McCarthy had charms, however perverse: Princeton psychologist Leon Kamen, who was blacklisted thanks to McCarthy's hounding, recalls bumping into his tormentor in a hallway and being greeted as if the two were good friends. (Among the few outright McCarthy fans interviewed here, one right-wing mouthpiece boasts that "he saved America," buying us a few decades until Ronald Reagan could "save the world.")

Ben Bradlee, Carl Bernstein and others speak to the senator's deft manipulation of the press: He was generous with secrets and home-cooked meals, making journalists much less likely to challenge headline-grabbing claims that had little or no basis in fact. But the film is less successful at explaining the demagogue's fall from power, taking the occasional chronological leap that, combined with frequent cuts to staged material, make the spectacular fall less gripping than it should be.

Production Company: HMR Produktion

Cast: John Sessions, Justine Waddell, Trystan Gravelle

Director: Lutz Hachmeister

Screenwriters: Lutz Hachmeister, Simone Holler

Producers: Lutz Hachmeister, Frank Dohmann

Director of photography: Hajo Schomerus

Production designer: Ralf Mootz

Music: Jewgeni Birkhoff

Costume designer: Lucia Faust

Editor: Mechthild Barth

No rating, 99 minutes