July 16, 2004

"Heir to an Execution."

The other documentary I watched yesterday (besides "Running Fence," discussed below), was "Heir to an Execution" (an HBO "America Undercover" feature). Ivy Meeropol, a granddaughter of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, has put together a rambling series of film clips aimed at showing the effects of the Rosenberg case on her family and several other persons who were close to the Rosenbergs. It relies too much on the "Roger and Me" device of following the filmmaker around as she tries to collect the interviews and other information. There simply wasn't enough of a personal journey here to justify that device (which is by now a very tired device anyway). Meeropol herself doesn't display much of a passion for getting at the truth or have any interesting reactions to the discoveries she does make. She is the nice, respectful family member who feels sad that her father had to grow up without parents and who goes to visit her grandparents' grave.

Why would you want to watch a film on this topic made by a family member? The best reason is that many people were willing to talk to her. (Although plenty weren't, and we're subjected to many minutes of watching her speaking into the phone to people whom we can't hear but can tell are declining to be interviewed.) Meeropol didn't use her access to obtain interviews that are in some way distinctive, so the full-length treatment seems quite self-indulgent. There were endless shots of people walking down hallways, remarking on the fact that this is a hallway that had been walked down at some time in the past, and many interviews of persons sitting on couches, reeling out memories, uninterrupted by questions any more searching than how did that make you feel. Considering all the couch interviews, it's humorous -- uncomfortably and unintentionally -- when Meeropol decides to make a 103-year-old man walk around outdoors for his interview.

Compare this film to "The Fog of War" to see how archival film footage and a talking-head interview can be made into something of genuine cinematic value.

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