De Antonio began his film career late in life, and he pursued it with vigor, through uncertain market conditions and shifting political climates. His first forays into the film world were distributing the landmark Beat film, Pull My Daisy and signing the New American Cinema manifesto in 1962. Soon afterward, de Antonio teamed up with Dan Talbot, owner of the independent New Yorker cinema, to make a film about the McCarthy hearings of 1954. Following the surprise success of that film, de Antonio threw himself into more political film projects.
De Antonio’s films were on the leading edge, both politically and aesthetically. From his very first film, Point of Order of 1964, de Antonio showed his propensity for questioning government authority and investigating powerful officials’ misdeeds. While the subject of that film had already fallen from grace by the time of its completion, de Antonio tackled more contemporary, and controversial, topics in his next films. From the JFK assassination (Rush to Judgment) to the war in Vietnam (In the Year of the Pig), de Antonio took radical stands on the most sensitive issues facing the United States. With Millhouse: A White Comedy, de Antonio indicted the character and politics of current president Richard M. Nixon, even before the Watergate scandal made this negative view a popular position. For Underground, de Antonio arranged secret meetings to film interviews with the fugitive members of the Weather Underground Organization. The film’s participants were, at that time, on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for carrying out politically-fueled bombings across the country. De Antonio never softened, making a film about Catholic anti-nuclear activists the Ploughshares 8 (In the King of Prussia) in 1982, at a time when much of the country was becoming more conservative. He never gave up his drive to make films that questioned received wisdom on the most important political moments of the time.
De Antonio also challenged the form of films, going against the grain of traditional expository documentaries and the new trend of documentary film: cinéma vérité. De Antonio did not embrace the traditional documentary form, with its authoritative voiceover narration, because he believed that it manipulated viewers by playing on their emotions and by interpreting images and sounds for them. He also scorned cinéma vérité because of its makers’ impossible claim of objectivity and their forays into rock concert films, both of which led to a cinema too apolitical for de Antonio’s taste. De Antonio’s sophisticated sense of craft, and his Marxist political beliefs, led him to conduct extensive research and create a collage-like cinema that activated his viewers’ intellects. Calling himself a “radical scavenger,” de Antonio used a multitude of materials to make his films, bringing together stock footage, clips from fiction films, interviews, and newly-shot footage.
Though de Antonio generally directed and produced his films without the aid of a studio or television network, he did complete some professional film jobs during his career, which helped fund his other work. The first, in 1965, was an hour-long documentary about the New York mayoral election that de Antonio shot for the BBC, called That’s Where the Action Is. The second, America Is Hard to See, completed in 1968, was a documentary about Eugene McCarthy campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. These two films are not often discussed, but they do show other production possibilities available to documentarians at the time.