Overview: For 55 years, Herbert L. Block’s signature “Herblock” was affixed to memorable cartoons that were published daily in the Washington Post and syndicated throughout the country in more than 1,800 newspapers. A true patriot, he elevated editorial cartoons to a level rivaling and, in critical ways, surpassing prose journalism, giving “a voice to the voiceless” through strokes of a pen.
In HERBLOCK – THE BLACK & THE WHITE, actor Alan Mandell portrays the cartoonist (who died in 2001) in scenes scripted from his speeches and interviews, and filmed in a re-creation of Herblock’s Washington Post office, filled with his personal effects and drawing tools. It also features interviews with former colleagues and fans such as Tom Brokaw, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Ted Koppel, Lewis Black, Gwen Ifill, Jon Stewart and others.
Expectations: I have scanned editorial cartoons through the years, but it is not a daily ritual. Plus, I am familiar with the artistic style of Herb Block’s work, but never knew his name or of his impact. It should be interesting to observe up close some of his work that the trailer indicates will be seen in the film. What I am not a huge fan of, but again the trailer indicates will be present, is a number of ‘talking heads’ giving tribute. Sometimes people sitting around talking about someone can be a bit dry and boring. However, it is odd, and thus intriguing, that the Overview credits an actor portraying the title character. I am interested on how that plays out in a documentary.
Gut Reaction: This documentary is a good hour and a half examination of the work and impact of political cartoonist and satirist Herb Block (pictured right). It is not so much a look at his personal life as he was a private man who practically lived in his office. Maybe, it is because of his privacy that there are not that many stills or footage of him. It helps then to have actor Alan Mandell personify the artist using words taken directly from writings and speeches from our subject. It added a great touch to the documentary, though seemed to be the staged act that it was. At least it broke up the testimonials given by the assembled aficionados.
The piece actually went though Herblock’s decades of work fairly well to a point. We see his imagery regarding the Great Depression, McCarthyism (which he coined) the threat of Nuclear War, Civil Rights and Vietnam. One of the best segments was his take on Nixon and Watergate; he saw it all coming. Then we seem to rush through Carter, Clinton and Reagan and then end up talking about the state of journalism today and how content like “the Daily Show” is the extension of Herblock’s satire. I could have done without that last bit.
Though you don’t learn a lot about the man you do learn of the fearless diligence he took via his drawings and the great commentary it made about the political scene through the decades.
In Conclusion: It could have been a bit more streamlined or cut out the talk and spent more time analyzing more of the cartoons, but in all it proved watchable and interesting. If you are a fan of such things it is certainly worth it. In fact, the next time I pick up a USA TODAY I probably won’t skip the editorial page again.
Other HBO air dates include 01.30 at 11:00am, 02.02 at 9:15am, 02.05 at 2:15pm, and 02.15 at 3:10pm. Find it on HBO2 on 01.29 at 8:00pm, 01.31 at 7:50am, 02.06 at 9:35am and 02.24 at 2:30pm. It can also be found on HBOGo.