Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Herblock: The Black and the White

Michael Stevens - grandson of filmmaker George Stevens - should be ashamed of himself for the unethical biodoc "Herblock: The Black and the White," about the Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block, whose 55-year career included four Pulitzers and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Interspersed with the cartoons themselves and glowing testimonials from talking heads are excerpts (bromide-filled monologues, really) from what is presented as an interview with Block, ostensibly conducted before his passing in 2001. Only at the end of the film, in the closing credits, does Stevens reveal that the man we've been listening to is not Block himself but an actor (Alan Mandell). Unlike the obviously staged reenactment of a scene from Block's youth that opens the movie, this dirty trick takes "Herblock" out of the realm of true documentary and renders it neither fish nor fowl.

Leaving that overarching criticism aside, the film fails on the most basic level in that you'd get more out of a book of Block's cartoons than its cloying combination of hagiography and a Cliffs Notes précis of 20th-century American history. Stevens whitewashes Block's left-leaning politics in a misguided attempt to portray him as equally critical of politicians from both aisles. The man was a liberal. There's nothing wrong with that, but be upfront about it. Don't pretend he took as many quality shots at Carter and Clinton as he did at Nixon and Reagan, when you can only point to a couple of in-over-his-head images of the peanut farmer and one image of Slick Willie addressing a press conference in just his boxers. (Only Brit Hume is allowed to voice the mildest criticism of Block.) Also, how about comparing Block's work with certain of his peers'? The L.A. Times' late Paul Conrad, say (also a multiple Pulitzer winner), or, from the right, Michael Ramirez, now of Investor's Business Daily:

There's no doubt Block was a genius, way ahead of the curve on Watergate and able to crystallize the multiple facets of broad issues into single, indelible images. He deserved a better remembrance. "Herblock: The Black and the White" left a very bad taste in my mouth.

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