'Herblock' review: Loving, informative doc on Washington Post's scathing cartoonist

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Herbert L. Block draws on the spot in Herbert L. Block draws on the spot in this undated photo from HBO's "Herblock: The Black & The White." Photo Credit: HBO

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REVIEW

THE DOCUMENTARY "Herblock -- The Black & The White"

WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 9 on HBO

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WHAT IT'S ABOUT Herbert Block -- known to generations of The Washington Post readers as "Herblock" -- was the pre-eminent editorial cartoonist of the 20th century. He died in 2001. This 94-minute documentary is produced by distinguished filmmaker George Stevens Jr. ("The Thin Red Line," "Kennedy Center Honors") and founder of the American Film Institute along with his son Michael Stevens. Filled with personal recollections from colleagues -- Bob Woodward, Ben Bradlee -- and a huge array of other legends, like Jules Feiffer, you will learn here what made Herblock so great: Says one admirer, "he championed the little guy spoke truth to power." Or drew truth to power. There are re-creations, including of Herblock -- played by stage actor Alan Mandell.

MY SAY There's something deeply peculiar about getting a leading interpreter of Samuel Beckett -- you know, "Waiting for Godot" and all that -- to play Herblock in this adulatory and otherwise straightforward look at the newspaper industry's greatest editorial cartoonist. Yes, Mandell is good, too good in fact, and how many people watching will think that's the real Herblock, speaking, as it were, from beyond the grave? Herblock probably wouldn't approve -- seeing it as just another TV trompe l'oeil designed to make an old newspaperman just a little more telegenic, or a little more kindly and humane. It's not only a silly embellishment but an unnecessary one because Herblock's drawings do all the real talking and prove -- over and over -- just how often and how resoundingly he was on the right side of history.

They were gorgeous and utterly devastating -- demolition balls in black ink that demanded but one thing: Fundamental decency among elected officials. Of course, he had an endless supply of raw material. When -- in the good old days -- you had a copy of the Post, your hand couldn't help itself but to reach for the opinion pages to see what or whom Herblock had defenestrated that day. This broadcast establishes just how much those defenestrations are needed now more than ever.

BOTTOM LINE Loving, informative, often fascinating portrait. But it could've done without the re-enactments.

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GRADE B+

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