“Herblock: The Black and the White,” Michael Stevens and George Stevens Jr.’s documentary about the late, legendary Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block, is both tribute and elegy. It’s a factually accurate account of the man’s work and its importance and meaning in (and beyond) the nation’s capital, especially now, in all this bitterly partisan noise.
What it lacks — what these well-intentioned documentaries so often lack — is a sense of how much fun Herblock had.
“Herblock” (airing Monday night on HBO) mostly turns Herblock into another Newseum exhibit, replete with the eerie and even clumsy use of an actor (Alan Mandell) who plays Herblock, seated in a detailed re-creation of his cluttered, toy-filled office in The Post’s newsroom, reading from a script that’s been assembled from speeches and interviews Herblock gave. No fault of Mandell’s, this narrative technique is reminiscent of animatronic presidents and costumed tour guides; where it doesn’t feel forced, it’s a little embarrassing.
Once you get past that, “Herblock” does a commendable job of acquainting viewers with its subject’s forthright principles over seven decades of work. Herblock, who joined The Post in 1946 after a successful run at a syndicate and Army service in World War II, drew cartoons until he died in 2001 at age 91.
The film interviews just about everybody you can think of, in a “This Town”-style traffic jam of bylines and book jackets — and it’s an overwhelmingly male array. Watching “Herblock” is a little like being at one of those Washington events where you worry about getting trampled, just the sort of thing Herblock was known to skip. There’s Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel, Jim Hoagland, Ken Auletta, Don Graham, Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Clarence Page, Hendrik Hertzberg, David Brooks, Bob Schieffer, Eugene Robinson, Thomas Friedman, Michael Beschloss; from the cartooning world, there’s Jules Feiffer, New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff and former Philadelphia Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth; and from “The Daily Show,” there’s Jon Stewart and Lewis Black. To name a few.
They all dutifully praise Herblock’s uncanny sense of moral clarity on the major issues of his era — fascism, war, the bomb, the environment, civil rights, lobbying reform, the wealth gap. Most famously, Herblock stood up to the rash of McCarthyism (a label Herblock is believed to have coined in one drawing) that offended his quietly patriotic sense of freedom. The film also explores, at some length, his early distaste for Richard Nixon, which turned out to be a warm-up for the cartoon gold mine that was Watergate.
After a long segment on the withering treatment that Lyndon Johnson received from Herblock during the Vietnam War era, Fox News’s Brit Hume dryly notes that Herblock never really picked on Democrats — ha! The film happily cuts to a Herblock cartoon of Bill Clinton with his pants down.
That’s all fine and predictably Washington in tone, but an hour into the film, one begins to despair that “Herblock’s” experts will never stop over-explaining the historical context of the cartoons (which explain themselves) and give us a sense of what the man was really like. It’s a missed opportunity to delve deeper into the mind-set of one of the mediasphere’s original workaholics, a gregarious colleague who nevertheless kept his rare off-hours to himself and shunned the dinner-party circuit; he even listed The Post’s address as his home address in the company directory.
The lack of female voices in the film is regrettable, perhaps an unintended flashback to what newsrooms used to be like. Herblock adored women, and only when they get a chance to speak does the randier, funnier Herblock become more vivid and real: Gwen Ifill, who praises Herblock’s commitment to the poor and oppressed, remembers with others his frequent walks across the Post newsroom to solicit opinions from beat reporters about the next day’s cartoon. Longtime assistant Jean Rickard tells us of Herblock’s habit of watching “Yogi Bear” and “Bullwinkle” in his office every afternoon. Way too late and all too briefly do we get to hear sweet and telling stories from Doree Lovell, Herblock’s companion for more than 30 years.
A wistfulness can’t help but run through “Herblock”; given their relative age, nearly all of the film’s interviewees seem convinced that a door has closed on an entire era, and to some degree, that’s true. Today, there are only a few dozen staff cartoonists left working for American newspapers and, from certain perspectives (well represented through the film’s slightly overlong 95 minutes), the citizenry is too busy bickering throughout an endless loop of news cycles to demonstrate the effective wit that Herblock came by naturally. (I would argue that the social networks have both broadened and elevated the form, especially when it comes to political humor.)
Only Black seems to recognize that this is a film about someone known for being funny and cutting, who, he observes, could do in one drawing what it takes a writing staff of 40 to do every night on “The Daily Show.” Looking at Herblock’s cartoons now, Black says, “His succinctness makes what we do at ‘The Daily Show’ look silly.”
(95 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO, with encores.