As Fahrenheit 9/11 racks up another week of multimillion-dollar grosses, pundits are buzzing that no major documentary has been so scathing toward a sitting president during an election. Apparently, they've never seen Emile de Antonio's Millhouse: A White Comedy.
De Antonio's name has barely been uttered in the clangor surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11, but from 1964 until his death in 1989, he made some of the left's most important political documentaries—including a 1971 film that took direct aim at a sitting chief executive, Richard Nixon. Millhouse: A White Comedy attacked Nixon as a red-baiter, a warmonger, and a phony who deviously manipulated his way into the White House. (De Antonio said he deliberately misspelled Nixon's middle name, Milhous, to make a pun, suggesting that a millhouse sounds heavy and burdensome, like the Nixon presidency.) The film was the Fahrenheit 9/11 of its day: delightful to the president's sworn foes, troubling to the White House, but in all likelihood bound, ultimately, for the status of historical curiosity.
A radical Marxist and bon vivant, de Antonio was a man of passions and intensities that make Michael Moore look like Tom Ridge. Born in 1919, de Antonio attended Harvard, where he was a classmate of John F. Kennedy, and served as a bomber pilot in World War II. Forgoing a career as an English professor, he plunged into the vibrant postwar New York City art scene, where he befriended Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol, in whose 1966 film Drink he starred—famously guzzling, in real time, a quart of whiskey in 20 minutes.
By the time he made Millhouse, de Antonio, like Moore, had several political documentaries under his belt. De Antonio's first movie, Point of Order (1964) was a fairly straightforward record of the televised 1954 Senate hearings that helped bring down the witch-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy. In the mode of the cinema verité that was then growing fashionable, he let the footage mostly speak for itself. He had initially commissioned a script written by McCarthy biographer Richard Rovere and narrated by Mike Wallace of CBS, but he scrapped it because it made the film seem like a standard television report. Watch Point of Order today, and it seems like nothing so much as C-SPAN on an exciting day. (In a 1989 interview, de Antonio called C-SPAN the only TV channel worth watching, because it's unedited.)
But if de Antonio's style was spare, his politics were strident. His subsequent films included Rush to Judgment (1966), which brought to the screen the conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy's assassination that author Mark Lane had already popularized in his best seller of the same name; In the Year of the Pig (1969), an Oscar-nominated film about Vietnam; and America Is Hard To See (1970), a chronicle of Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential bid.
Millhouse: A White Comedy opened in September 1971. In de Antonio's typical style, it mostly stuck to recounting the facts, drawing heavily on extended segments from Nixon's own addresses to trace the president's career—from his 1946 race for Congress to his 1970 New Year's ball (where Nixon says of bandleader Guy Lombardo, "I just hope we're dancing to his music when we end the next war!"). Although journalists sympathetic to the director's politics offer talking-head commentary, there is none of the tendentious narration that mars Fahrenheit 9/11. (Millhouse also generally lacks Moore's inspired wackiness, except for a few low-comedy moments, as when the soundtrack plays the Chiquita Banana song while the film covers Nixon's 1958 trip to Latin America.) Still, because of what's included and omitted, the film's politics are plenty obvious—as, for instance, when a list of American corporations with business interests in Southeast Asia scrolls down the screen as Nixon holds forth about Vietnam.
When Millhouse was released, public frustration over a war gone bad was high. The president seeking re-election, despite having first run as "a unifier, not a divider" (Nixon's words), had turned out to be an intensely polarizing figure. And although the filmnever attracted the millions that have flocked to Fahrenheit, Time, Newsweek, and the leading newspapers did review Millhouse—mixing praise with observations that its "cheap shots" and "partisan zeal" would appeal mainly to Nixon haters—and the documentary drew big crowds in art houses.
As with Fahrenheit, Millhouse's possible political impact provoked much chatter, not least in the White House. Nixon's Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, peppered the White House Counsel's office with concerns about the documentary, John Dean reported in his memoir, Blind Ambition. Haldeman feared that the film might hurt Nixon with the all-important "youth vote" and wondered if it might be suppressed. Jack Caulfield, the private detective the White House had hired to perform "dirty tricks," got de Antonio's file from the FBI; Dean's office planned to publicize the dossier if the film started to damage the president. An IRS audit of the director and of Daniel Talbot, the distributor, was readied. But the movie's popularity never reached dangerous levels, and the counter-offensive was tabled.
Millhouse remains absorbing today: The extended footage of Nixon is illuminating, and some portions are unintentionally revealing, as when Bob Hope sputters his way through a string of homophobic jokes. But it's no coincidence that de Antonio has faded in popular memory while the cinema verité innovators Albert and David Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Frederick Wiseman, his contemporaries, have entered the film canon. For de Antonio, despite recognizing the power of unmediated film, never transcended his own politics. Unlike Wiseman's and Pennebaker's eye-opening social commentaries, his films remain historical artifacts. De Antonio always disdained the cinema verité crowd as insufficiently radical. But while he, with his radical politics, made interesting but ultimately ephemeral films, his rivals, possessed of more prosaic views, bequeathed a legacy of radical, groundbreaking art. Michael Moore might do well to take note.