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Film Review: ‘Herblock: The Black & the White’

A warmly celebratory portrait of the Washington Post illustrator who sometimes drew blood while drawing 13 successive U.S. presidents.

With:

Alan Mandell,  Ken Auletta, Lewis Black, Ben Bradlee, Tom Brokaw, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Jules Feiffer, Brit Hume, Ted Koppel, Jon Stewart, Eugene Robinson, Tom Friedman, David Brooks, Gwen Ifill, Rick Hertzberg, Victor Navasky, Richard Cohen, Al Hunt, Hendrik Hertzberg, Haynes Johnson, Chris Matthews, Clarence Page, Bob Schieffer, Michael Beschloss, Doree Lovell.

Herbert Lawrence Block, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who created his signature by compressing his name, is the subject of a warmly celebratory portrait in “Herblock: The Black & the White.” But wait, there’s more: While detailing the decades-long career of the Washington Post illustrator who sometimes drew blood while drawing 13 successive U.S. presidents, documaker Michael Stevens also constructs what amounts to a history lesson in 20th-century progressive political philosophy. Limited theatrical exposure should generate favorable buzz for the pic’s eventual release in home-screen formats. Moreover, “Herblock” doubtless will have a long shelf-life as a college-level teaching tool.

To be sure, some documentary purists may disapprove of Stevens’ decision to use excerpts from a staged “interview” with an elderly yet spry Herblock (persuasively played by Alan Mandell) for introductions, transitions and sporadic narration. (In real life, Herblock died in 2001 at age 91, six weeks after his final cartoon appeared on the Post editorial page.) But this potentially off-putting device works splendidly, Mandell conveying just the right touch of avuncular gravitas with the aid of an eloquent script (by Stevens and co-producer Sara Lukinson) drawn from Herblock’s own speeches and writings.

“Herblock” brims with scads of testimonials and remembrances from obviously enthusiastic interviewees, most of them journalists who covered U.S. politics during the artist’s 55-year stint at the Washington Post. Fox News anchor Brit Hume, who complains — not without justification — that Herblock was tougher on Republicans than Democrats, is virtually the only critical voice heard in what otherwise sounds like a chorus of full-throated approval.

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“You would not have wanted to be Herblock’s enemy,” Ted Koppel recalls with a grin, “because he was going to nail your hide to the wall.” But sharply satirical wit was just one weapon in his arsenal; keenly perceptive insight was another. Washington Post legends Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward freely admit that Herblock — a lifelong critic of Richard Nixon — instinctively grasped the full extent of Nixon-era White House corruption long before even they realized Watergate was more than just a third-rate burglary.

Until Herblock began to press the subject in many of his five-day-a-week cartoons, CBS mainstay Bob Schieffer recalls, “Most of us weren’t taking it seriously. Myself included.” Adds cartoonist Jules Feiffer: “The Nixon Herblock showed us was the Nixon we heard on the (White House) tapes.”

A Chicago native who began winning awards for his artwork at age 11, Herblock rankled a few employers during his salad days with his left-leaning editorial cartoons. Indeed, as Stevens’ docu relates, he was on the verge of being canned by the Newspaper Enterprise Association when he won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1942. Later, during the 1952 presidential campaign, some of his cartoons tweaking GOP candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower (and, of course, running mate Richard M. Nixon) were pulled from the Washington Post by then-publisher Phil Graham — who nonetheless allowed their distribution over the Post wire, and eventually backed away from his de facto censorship.

In the world according to Herblock, the artist never emerged on the wrong side of history, and often proved remarkably prescient with his sometimes shockingly funny, sometimes deadly serious single-panel cartoons. He lampooned Hitler in the 1930s, openly supported the civil-rights movement as early as the 1940s, began warning against campaign funding by special interests around 1950, and actually coined the derogatory term “McCarthyism” during heyday of anti-communist zealotry. (As Koppel admiringly observes with dry understatement: “Being anti-Joe McCarthy in the early ‘50s was not without risks.”)

Veteran newscaster and historian Tom Brokaw views “The Daily Show” as a contemporary “extension” of Herblock’s trademark style of speaking truth to power. Jon Stewart himself praises the cartoonist as “one of the touchstones, one of the tentpoles of 20th-century satire,” while Lewis Black sounds downright envious when he says of Herblock: “His succinctness makes what we do on ‘The Daily Show’ look downright silly.”

Taking its cue from Herblock’s own circumspection regarding his private life, Herblock offers only bare-bones biographical details about its subject for most of its running time. In the final reel, however, Stevens offers a couple of revelations that bring the documentary to a dramatically and emotionally satisfying conclusion — and, not incidentally, leave a viewer with the pleasing sensation of discovering a worthy individual was able to savor just desserts.

The pic’s overall technical polish enhances its engaging storytelling. Whatever one thinks of the faux interview segments, the attentiveness to details in these scenes — note the coffee cans filled with pencils atop the cluttered Washington Post office desk — is undeniably impressive.

Incidentally, it’s amusing to speculate how Herblock would have felt about having a documentary about his life and work reach theaters on precisely the same weekend as a star-studded drama about another real-life observer of U.S. presidents.

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