The film Good Night and Good Luck contains many striking performances - by George Clooney, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jnr and especially the lean-faced, perma-smoking David Strathairn as crusading TV news anchor Ed Murrow.
But one performance doesn't quite fit with the others. It's simply a face, mouthing lazy threats from a TV screen, but what a face - a boxer's mug, hostile and pugnacious, the eyes deep-set and hooded, a witch's peak of hair arrowing across a pasty brow.
The performance failed to impress some of the preview "test" audiences. They thought the actor was, they said, overacting. What they didn't realise was, this was real. They'd been looking at a real-life broadcast, taken from archive footage, by Senator Joe McCarthy, the man who terrorised America for five years.
It's quite a statement by Clooney (who directed the movie) and his casting directors not to have got an actor to play McCarthy. But they made the right decision. No actor could quite convey the aura of menace that emanates from this Republican Torquemada. This was what confronted hundreds of government officials, State department civil servants, army officers, librarians, journalists and broadcasters in the early Fifties. McCarthy brought them all under his pitiless gaze and told the nation they were dangerous subversives, bent on enslaving America beneath a Communist yoke. He scared the life out of Americans, and convinced them that the land of freedom was pullulating with Soviet spies and Commie sympathisers.
The drama of Good Night lies in watching Murrow and his team on the TV show See It Now take on McCarthy and suffer the consequences. The film opens in 1953,when the country was already in the grip of red-baiting fever. But how did it get that way? How did this junior senator from Nowheresville rise to such a position of power that, in the words of his biographer, "no man was closer than he to the centre of American consciousness, or more central to the world's consciousness of America".
Modern US perspectives on McCarthy are so extreme - to the Left he is Satan incarnate, to the Right he's an admirably direct militant patriot - that the basic facts of his life are often in dispute. He was born in November 1908 in either Appleton or Grand Chute, Wisconsin. Some commentators stress his seditious Irish Catholic roots, some his Hunnish German grandmother. He dropped out of school to help on the family farm, work as a chicken farmer and run a grocery store. At 20, he returned to high school, crammed four years' study into a single year and went on to take a law degree at Marquette university, Milwaukee. He worked for a Wisconsin law firm, supplementing his income by playing poker.
At 28 he campaigned to be district attorney as a Democrat. When that didn't work, he became Republican candidate in an election to be a circuit judge. An early marker of his bruising style was to send out flyers claiming his 66-year-old opponent, Edgar Werner, was 73, senile and mired in financial corruption. He won, and became the youngest judge in Wisconsin's history.
When America went to war, McCarthy enlisted in the Marines, became an intelligence briefing officer in the Solomon Islands, flew 11 (or possibly 30) missions as an aerial photographer and tail gunner, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and commended for bravery by Admiral Nimitz. Or did he? Many historians claim he embellished his war record - that he had a desk job, flew only in training exercises and got the Nimitz commendation by deception.
It didn't stop him using photos of himself in full fighting gear when campaigning for the Senate against Robert La Follette, a four-term senator and Republican star. He attacked La Follette for not serving his country (at 46, he'd been too old to join up) and for war profiteering. La Follette lost by 5,000 votes, retired from politics and committed suicide.
And so McCarthy launched himself into politics. In the general election he beat his Democratic opponent and entered the Senate. In a typically restrained maiden speech he addressed the problem of a coal strike. He suggested the striking miners should be drafted into the Army. Then if they refused to go back to work, they could be tried for insubordination and shot. Simple.
McCarthy's first three years in power were quiet; he was considered friendly but unimpressive and without influence. What made him start demonising Communists? The move was prompted by fear of losing his seat. In 1949 he was under investigation for taking bribes and dodging tax. His war record was also under scrutiny. What should he do? His advisers suggested he attack the Democrats and accuse them of harbouring Red subversives.
Two key figures helped McCarthy build a case. One was Jack Anderson, a journalist who would listen in as McCarthy grilled fellow senators on the phone about recent meetings and political loyalties. McCarthy got his senate peers to spill the beans. Anderson got stories, and supplied McCarthy with information. The second aide was J Edgar Hoover, the FBI boss who fed McCarthy all manner of ammunition.
The explosion came in 1950. On 9 February McCarthy made a speech to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. He held up a piece of paper and said, "I have here in my hand a list of 57 people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy of the State department." Some, he said, were passing secrets to the Soviet Union. Eleven days later, in a six-hour speech on the Senate floor, he repeated his claims and named four of the alleged subversives. When Democrat senators accused him of lying and smear tactics, he accused them of being Communist sympathisers.
There was nationwide consternation. Despite McCarthy's refusal to publish his list and his chronic inability to stick to one figure (were there 57, 81 or 205 card-carrying Reds?) people were ready to believe in Commie infiltration. A month earlier, Alger Hiss had been jailed for perjury after being accused of being an accomplice to a former member of an underground Communist network. The war was going badly in Korea. In China, the Kuomintang regime had been replaced by a Communist government. The shadow of Soviet Russia was lengthening across Europe, and there was much talk of an atomic arsenal, of spying, brainwashing and what McCarthy called "the traitorous actions of those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer". The following year, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Russians, McCarthy seemed to be vindicated.
Was there any truth in his claim? Surprisingly, there was a list - of sorts. It was sent in 1946 by the Secretary of State James Byrnes to a Congressman, and contained the names of 284 people declared unfit to hold jobs in the Department because of Communist connections or other reasons. The "other reasons" included incompetence, homosexuality and alcoholism. (As some have pointed out, if McCarthy had been screened, he'd have gone on the list himself.) Of card-carrying Communists, there was little evidence. McCarthy's claims were investigated by the Tydings Committee, to whom he was obliged to give the list (by now 110 names). The Committee concluded, after 31 days of hearings, that the senator's charges were a "fraud" and a "hoax." Three days later, the FBI arrested Julius Rosenberg for spying.
It's hard for us to imagine the scale of hysteria in the next three years, as McCarthy spread his net of accusations, taking in top politicians, leading academics, and the owner of Encyclopaedia Britannica. As chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate, McCarthy was inviolable. Anyone who criticised his claims was branded a traitor. Hostile journalists were attacked, sometimes physically. Drew Pearson, for months a thorn in McCarthy's side, was branded "a Moscow-directed character assassin" and kicked in the groin by McCarthy in the cloakroom of a Washington club.
McCarthy began to add books to his witch-hunt. His underlings checked out the library system, and the Overseas Library Program looking for anti-American propaganda, and found 30,000 titles by "communists, pro-communists, former communists and anti-anti-communists". They were removed from US libraries.
The interrogations continued. In 1953, McCarthy's committee examined 653 individuals - first in private closed session (rumours spread about "abuse" and "browbeating" on some occasions); then, if a witness invoked the Fifth Amendment, they'd be examined in public court and their names publicised. If, the logic ran, you had ever publicly held left-wing views, you were probably a Communist; the only way to prove you'd changed was to shop other left-wingers. Such was the climate of fear, hundreds of people lost their jobs. By 1954, 81 of the 110 names put before Tydings subcommittee had resigned or been dismissed.
McCarthy even attacked the president, accusing Harry S Truman of being a woolly liberal, "soft" on Communists and keen to protect Soviet agents. Truman lost the 1952 election, and the Republican Eisenhower moved into the White House. He disapproved of McCarthy's tactics but was pressured by his party not to denounce the popular demagogue.
Then McCarthy over-reached himself. He took on the Army, investigating a New York dentist called Peress, drafted as a captain in 1952 and supposedly a Party member. The Army retaliated by feeding journalists with stories that would embarrass the senator - such as, that he and his Committee sidekick Roy Cohn had conspired to prevent their friend David Schine from being drafted, and that Cohn had put pressure on Army personnel to give Schine special privileges.
The Army-McCarthy Hearings lasted 36 days and were watched on new-fangled televisions by 20 million Americans. They were especially struck by one interchange, when the Army's attorney-general Joseph Welch listened to McCarthy bad-mouth yet another junior lawyer and exploded: "Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?"
By now the American media had stopped being too frightened of McCarthy to speak. Columnists went on the offensive. Ed Murrow openly criticised McCarthy's methods on See It Now on 9 March 1954. Three weeks later, McCarthy responded by attacking Murrow on the programme. The public, seeing their anti-Red champion as a sneering roughneck, withdrew their support. In July, a senator accused McCarthy of 46 counts of "conduct unbecoming a member of the US Senate", a rap-sheet later reduced to two. It was enough. On 2 December 1954, the Senate voted to "condemn" McCarthy by 67 votes to 22. He lost the chairmanship of the Government Committee that had been his throne since 1950. His power base had vanished. His public support dwindled away. The press wouldn't touch a McCarthy story. He was finished. A chronic heavy drinker, he suffered from cirrhosis and died of hepatitis in May 1957 at 48.
What had it all been for? To modern-day supporters, like the right-wing pundit Anne Coulter, he represented an expression of popular dissatisfaction. To Anatole Lieven, the historian of modern US nationalism, he nursed an Irish-Catholic hatred of the intellectual élites of the Wasp establishment. But the best summation is from his biographer, Richard H Rovere: "He was not totalitarian in any significant sense, or even reactionary. The social and economic order didn't interest him. If he was anything at all in the realm of ideas, principles, doctrines, he was a species of nihilist; he was an essentially destructive force, a revolutionist without any revolutionary vision, a rebel without a cause."
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies