Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Documentary, Film Reviews

Review: I.F. Stone’s Weekly

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

After nearly being consigned to oblivion by its would-be distributors, I.F. Stone’s Weekly was withdrawn by its creator, 26-year-old Jerry Bruck, and rereleased for a small engagement in Washington, D.C. Its popularity led to a New York showing, and then a San Francisco run which broke all records for the exhibiting house. Bruck and his modest, 62-minute, black-and-white documentary have unpredictably become the sensation of the year. How to explain the phenomenon? Certainly not in terms of cinematic achievement, for there are no particularly new or inventive techniques employed in the film. In fact, Bruck frequently indulges in some rather worn ones (an Amherst ceremony honoring Stone is intercut with a Marine Corps parade honoring Lyndon Johnson and news footage of napalm bombings in Vietnam, while the Amherst choir sings on), and uses them sometimes unfairly, as when he loads the dice in Stone’s favor with news film of Ron Ziegler and Tom Jarriel playing tennis under the watchful eye of Tricia Nixon Cox while Stone’s voice describes how mainstream journalists play ball with the White House. Not that the device doesn’t work. It’s good for a jolt—which is precisely why it shouldn’t have been used. Jarriel is one of the least collusive of Washington pressmen, and to resort to a misleading visual pun to indict him cheapens an otherwise solid film.

In addition, Bruck’s film places too much emphasis on Vietnam for my money. After all, we are enlightened; everyone opposes the war these days; and although Stone was far ahead of the country in doing so, playing upon the current popularity of the viewpoint sells Stone himself short. But the film’s phenomenal success is clearly due to the fact that it is an idea whose time has come. Bruck’s liberal bent is betrayed by the fact that, throughout his scathing indictment of Vietnam, personified most frequently in Lyndon Johnson and his Cabinet, sometimes in Richard Nixon, there is nary a mention of JFK. The film yields, for the liberal viewer, an easy confirmation of currently fashionable political ideals, and the vicarious thrill of participating in the good fight without undergoing the attendant sufferings that Izzy Stone has borne most of his life. It is too easy—almost condescending—to praise Stone now: where, one wonders, was all this admiration and acclaim when Stone was putting out his weekly newspaper on a shoestring budget, unable to write for existing publications because he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era? He was dangerous property then; but today, in the aftermath of Watergate and affiliated scandals, anyone who says “All governments are liars” and proves it is surefire box office.

To be fair, box office is hardly what Jerry Bruck had in mind when he made the film. Originally intended for high school and college bookings only, it is a crisp and enjoyable little film, an informative portrait of a witty, dedicated, vastly knowledgeable and uncompromising journalistic drop-out, the god of both investigative journalists and the underground paper set. Clearly a personal hero of Bruck’s, Stone is depicted in the film as a saintly man who was always right, always good, and always damnably modest about it (“Anyone could do it”). By all indications, the depiction is very near the truth. Some of Bruck’s stylistic devices reflect Stone’s own investigative style and his dedication to reading. One reads a great deal watching I.F. Stone’s Weekly: sections of his editorials are superimposed as titles over footage of the events on which they comment (e.g., the signing of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution). Bruck’s portrait of Stone’s life and work, his “maniacal zest and idiot zeal,” is competently and compactly presented utilizing the fruits of Stone-like investigation: childhood photographs, worn newspaper clippings, old TV newsfilm, remnants of filmed interviews with Stone, and much of Bruck’s own films of Stone at ceremonies, at work, and lecturing. What emerges by the end is an entirely convincing picture of a saint who could have been a savior if enough people had listened.

But the film is as interesting for the questions it raises—intentionally or no—as for the ones it answers about Stone. It is precisely because so few people listened to him that Stone is today a hero and not just another mainstream Establishment journalist. Good journalism is his own private best pleasure in life, Stone says, citing this as the reason he untiringly sought out and exposed what was evil. He is not morally outraged at the government he attacks, any more than he is morally impressed with himself. Stone and Jarriel and Cronkite represent a medium. During the Sixties, Stone confirmed our suspicion that the bastards were up to no good, while Jarriel and Cronkite tried to deny it. As it turns out in the Seventies, Stone was right—and so were we. Stone was right, however, because he was the most careful journalist; he, better than Jarriel or Cronkite, fulfilled the role of their common medium. We were right on moral intuition. It is easy (and Bruck seeks to entice one) to leap from Stone’s excellence as a reporter of evil that successfully concealed itself from other journalists, to the conclusion that Stone is, in himself, Goodness. We see in I.F. Stone’s Weekly, once again, the unforgettable pictures of that naked Vietnamese girl running from the napalm; but we see also on film some of the newsmen who took those pictures, and are immediately impressed by the fact that they are filming her rather than helping her. At another point in the film Stone is questioned by a group of radicals as to what they should do to effect the changes they desire. “Do?” replies Stone. “Just what you’re doing: shout a lot.” Yet one wonders about the efficacy of this approach, even if the shouting is articulate and well-researched, and the shouter is as admirable a man as Izzy Stone.

A Film by Jerry Bruck Jr. Narration: Tom Wicker.

Copyright © 1974 Robert C. Cumbow and Grace Blond