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Why Michael Shannon is so right to play red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy

The notorious politician still ranks as one of the primary villains in 20th century US history. So why, asks Geoffrey Macnab, have filmmakers been so wary of dramatising his life?

Friday 12 November 2021 06:40
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<p>American dream team: Shannon and McCarthy</p>

American dream team: Shannon and McCarthy

It’s astonishing that cinema hasn’t done more with Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957). The American anti-communist politician was a larger than life figure, a bully, fraudster and demagogue who knew just how to pander to American voters’ baser instincts. He was a regular fixture on every household’s television set in the early 1950s, and his name continues to be a by-word for persecution.

Nonetheless, for going on 70 years, filmmakers have remained strangely wary about portraying McCarthy on screen. It’s as if they feel that he is too toxic a figure to put in the middle of a movie. He has featured in many documentaries but his story has never been dramatised.

Now, at long last, the Republican senator is to get the big screen treatment. Michael Shannon has just signed on to portray him in a new movie to be made by The Painted Bird director Václav Marhoul.

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