While not an outstanding biopic, the made-for-TV Joseph McCarthy saga Tail Gunner Joe has many virtues, not least of which is a fundamental lesson the American people still haven’t learned. After all, McCarthy was a blustery fearmonger who destroyed people’s lives based on nothing but hearsay and innuendo—if not outright falsehoods—and he built his political career not on his own ideals and accomplishments, but by promising to rid America of enemies that, conveniently, only he had the power to identify. Sound familiar? Trade Congressional hearings for televised campaign rallies and Twitter rants, and the parallels between McCarthy and Donald Trump become apparent. They’re very different men following very different trajectories, but they align in the areas of hubris, recklessness, and strategy. Moreover, both McCarthy and Trump fall well below the average in terms of conscience and shame. As McCarthy did, Trump succeeds by aggrandizing himself and victimizing those with less power. All of which is a way of saying that even though Tail Gunner Joe is completely respectable in every important regard, from acting to scripting to technical execution, it’s ordinary except as a cautionary tale with echoes that continue to resound well into the 21st century.
The movie opens with the Army-McCarthy Hearings of the mid-1950s, which culminated in lawyer Joseph Nye Welch’s famous condemnation, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Between the introduction of the hearings and the delivery of that condemnation, the movie uses the contemporary framing device of a reporter investigating the McCarthy era, thereby connecting flashbacks tracking McCarthy’s rise and fall. The reporter is Logan (Heather Menzies), assigned to the story by an unnamed veteran editor (Charles Cioffi) who covered McCarthy back in the day. Her angle is determining how and why McCarthy aggregated so much power with a witch hunt ostensibly designed to discover communists hiding in American government and private-industry jobs. Peter Boyle plays McCarthy in the flashbacks, which comprise most of the picture’s running time. The portrayal is all bluster and smoke, conveying the idea that McCarthy struck his early supporters as a charming scamp, only to lose favor as he devolved into a hate-spewing demagogue. The implication is that McCarthy got lost in his own rhetoric, gravitating toward his witch hunt because it was the platform that got him the most attention, then dooming himself to political oblivion by pressing the issue past the point of reason. The filmmakers also stress that, like Richard Nixon, McCarthy had a long history of smearing political opponents with bogus accusations.
The title stems from a colorful sequence depicting McCarthy’s WWII service in the Pacific theater. Frustrated at being grounded, “Tail Gunner Joe” climbed into a plane on the tarmac and wasted nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition blasting coconut trees. His antics won him widespread news coverage, so McCarthy began his first Senate campaign while still in uniform—even though it was illegal to do so.
Writer Lane Slate and director Jud Taylor do a workmanlike job of presenting their interpretation of McCarthy’s psychological makeup, though the film almost inevitably slips into mechanical rhythms once the endless cycle of scenes depicting legal proceedings begins. Not helping matters is a cast largely comprising B-list actors—Andrew Duggan, John Forsythe, Henry Jones—because the film sparks whenever someone powerful appears, such as Ned Beatty or Burgess Meredith, then lags when they disappear. Boyle’s deliberately repellant performance needs more counterpoint than it gets until the climax, when Meredith, portraying Welch, beautifully delivers the “decency” monologue. In a clumsier moment of speechifying, Logan—the reporter—laments that her peers in the Fourth Estate gave McCarthy his agency by providing free press every time he said something outrageous. “McCarthy calls Truman a traitor,” she says. “That's not news, that’s madness.” Again, in the era of Donald Trump launching one baseless accusation after another at Barack Obama and countless other targets of his unhinged invective, all of this sounds depressingly familiar.
Tail Gunner Joe: GROOVY