The Real American: Joe McCarthy

LENGTH: 100 min
COUNTRY: Germany & USA
YEAR: 2011
GENRE: Documentary
DIRECTOR: Lutz Hachmeister
CAST: John Sessions, Justine Waddell, Trystan Gravelle, James Garnon, Philip Bulcock, Al Gregg, Robert Lyons, Tim Ahern, Ryan McCluskey, Toby Longworth, Mark Plonsky, Morgan Deare, Shawn Lawton, Esther Zimmering, Liam Mockridge
CREW: PRODUCERS: Lutz Hachmeister, Frank Dohmann; CO-PRODUCERS: Gunther Van Endert, Donald Jenichen, Anne Even; CINEMATAGRAPHER: Hajo Schomerus; EDITOR: Mechthild Barth; MUSIC: Jewgeni Birkhoff


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The Real American separates the man from the myth and presents the first balanced and comprehensive picture of one of the early “bad guys” of televised politics. The film depicts the farmer’s son‘s meteoric rise from freshman senator to televised “commie” hunting demagogue, who literally drank himself to death two years prior to his 50th birthday. Blinded by his desire to be “the number one guy in Washington”, McCarthy took up misguided battles with the Army, the State Department, the CIA and even the President himself – until these forces, most notably the CIA, took active measures against him. With Sarah Palin’s rise and the right libertarian “Tea Party Movement”, the film has gained a stunning political actuality.

For five years, award-winning filmmaker Lutz Hachmeister and his team have been doing extensive research in international archives to complete their “brilliant docudrama” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung). Thereby, they came across only just recently released material. The Real American switches skillfully between dramatic original script and authentic footage, as well as interviews that Hachmeister conducted with McCarthy’s only remaining family members, a wide range of top-class eyewitnesses and media historians. Among others, names such as Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Pulitzer Prize winner Haynes Johnson, Conservative Best Seller Ann Coulter, Watergate Legends Carl Bernstein & Ben Bradlee, and Ex-KGB general Oleg Kalugin, lend their voices and unique insights to McCarthy’s rise and fall.



Senator Joseph R. McCarthy is typically depicted as a corpulent older man interrogating Hollywood actors and directors, baring down on Bert Brecht all while resting on his perch – presiding over the House Committee on Un-American Activities” (HCUA).

However, this caricature couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Joseph Raymond McCarthy of Appleton, Wisconsin only lived until the age of 47 years. He died in 1957 from a liver disease after spending the final years of his life immersed in heavy drinking. Moreover, he had nothing whatsoever to do with Hollywood, Brecht or the HCUA. In fact, the latter was assigned to the House of Representatives; McCarthy had held a seat in the Senate for the Republican Party since 1946. His public career, as grotesque as it was pompous, only lasted four years, from 1950 to 1954. He was subsequently silenced and rebuked by the Senate for uncooperative behaviour, reduced afterwards to nothing more than a relic, muttering ineffective nothings to an increasingly invisible audience, toiling in relative obscurity in the absence of any media attention until the end of his life. His is the career of a self made American politician in the Coldest of Wars, a populist and journalism darling, ultimately brought down by his own public, televised hearings. McCarthy’s one lasting success is his namesake “McCarthyism” remains tightly woven to the fabric of American political speech and lives on as a political code long after his ministry expired. A political revenant – with regard to the current “Tea Party” in the USA – the McCarthy archetype is very much alive and well.

It has been almost 10 years since I became acquainted with McCarthy mythology. I was researching and shooting “War Criminal Prison Nr. 1”, a TV documentary about Landsberg where Krupp, Flick, Wehrmacht Generals, NS medics and SS troops were detained after 1945 – and occasionally awaited their execution. McCarthy, along with a group of other senators, had plead to pursue accusations against the US Army, claiming that members were guilty of holding mock executions and exacting methods of torture upon the SS prisoners. At that time, McCarthy had not yet become the star of the anticommunist movement, but was more of an unknown backbencher in the Senate, desperately trying to establish himself. It is likely that he had financial grants and supporters of German descent in Wisconsin; industrialists with names like Harnischfeger or Sensenbrenner. I started to immerse myself in McCarthy’s biography; a farmer’s son and chicken breeder, who was forced to play catch up in high school, and as such earned a late degree, finally studying law at Marquette University.

Then, in 2005, George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck was released and in many ways, I believed that would be the end of the matter. But Clooney and his scriptwriter Grant Heslov had chosen to concentrate on the noble fight led by several CBS journalists surrounding Ed Murrow against McCarthy’s demagogy with the Senator himself remaining more or less in the dark. So, with the support of the ZDF, Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen and other sponsors, we chose another path – a mixture of McCarthy’s inside view, evidence from contemporary witnesses and archive material; that is, to speak optimistically, following Flaubert’s style indirect libre.

In this regard, the appealing but ever difficult genre of the docudrama seemed appropriate. Difficult, because of its close vicinity to the television “re-enactment” or its tendency to be over-didactically realized; both of which had to be avoided here. McCarthy’s life and ministry is so tremendously characterized by the “paranoid style” of the 1940s and 1950s, that, aesthetically – with respect to the whole underlying biographical chronology – I wanted to work in a “kaleidoscopic” fashion (McLuahn).

Of course there was a script for the dramatic scenes, but only a lack of determined screenplay for the movie as a whole (a film funding institution that ultimately refused our application had demanded one). So, first we took ourselves off to California, where we shot during former communist William Marx Mandel s more than vaguely hippie-esque 90th birthday. From there it was off to New York, where our interview with Henry Kissinger was interrupted by a large-scale, high-rise evacuation drill. In the office of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, also nearly 90 years of age, (incidentally portrayed by Jason Robards in All The President’s Men), began by admonishing a handful of younger journalists (who failed to fulfil a task in time), before he expressed his outright contempt for McCarthy “He was just a little jerk.”, Bradlee told us.

And so we are left with the basic conflict that still defines today’s US domestic policy the great chasm between California and “Jew York City” on the one hand, and the “Real Americans” of the Midwest, Texas and Southern States on the other. The early CIA, with its Harvard and Yale graduates, acted in this exact manner against the strategically outmatched and short-termed public minded McCarthy who most of all failed to understand, that with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s victory at the 1952 presidential elections, the game had fundamentally changed for the Republican Party. Nevertheless, “Joe” continued as he had before, adding to his list of targets and tarring the Eisenhower administration with accusations of treason and softhandedness in dealing with Soviet sympathizers. Indeed, when he finally launched his direct attack on the US-Army, it became painfully obvious that he had no real quantifiable power base. As a politician one cannot just simply rely on media hype and stir as McCarthy would learn all too well.

Ultimately, the dramatic sequences were shot at the old Gerling-Komplex in Cologne, with a cast of very dedicated actors, and with regard to the contents – John Sessions, our McCarthy, had formerly played the Russian double agent Yuri Modin before, in Robert De Niro’s The Good Sheperd. In addition to many others, The Real American owes its vital American appeal to its production design (Production Design Ralf Mootz, Hair & MakeUp Design Delia MUndelein & Horst Allert), its camera work (Hajo Schomerus) and its editing (Mechthild Barth) – although it should not be overlooked that the Director’s viewpoint on this era of US history is and is intended to be a decidedly European one. Yet still, however, a basic criterion for the film’s success and lasting effect is that it be recognized and eventually added to pantheon of popular debate inside of the United States.
– Lutz Hachmeister, Director