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Good Night, and Good Luck

By Daniel Carlson | Miscellaneous | September 22, 2009 |

By Daniel Carlson | Miscellaneous | September 22, 2009 |

Tonight is the first edition of The Pajiba Movie Club, where we announce a movie a couple of weeks in advance, you check it out, and everyone comes back at an appointed time to discuss it. We will select someone who participates in tonight’s discussion to pick the next entry in this series, should this one succeed. We will kick it off with Dan’s fine review, originally published in 2005. You folks can take it from here. — DR

No one knows who Edward R. Murrow was anymore. At least, no one in my generation. And I was a journalism major in college. Granted, I had the curious fortune to attend a private religious university, so most of the students probably would only have known Murrow’s name if he were a key player in Bush’s election. Nonetheless, no one now really knows about Murrow, and if they do, it’s from a few cursory paragraphs in their 11th-grade history books, sandwiched between a blurb about the Dresden bombing and the rough draft of their notes about how Laguna Beach is like totally the greatest show ever. Not many people know much about how Murrow, as a television journalist for CBS, shed a powerful light upon the frightening work of Joseph McCarthy, a senator from Wisconsin with an axe to grind against the Communist Party. McCarthy always claimed to have proof that Communists were infiltrating the White House, or Hollywood, or our very own sacred American neighborhoods. It might be hard for some people to understand the foolish paranoia that McCarthy was working to spread back then, but substitute “Al Qaeda” for “Communist” and you start to get the idea.

David Strathairn stars as Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, the second film from director George Clooney, and a far more accomplished one than his Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Clooney co-stars as Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly, and the film follows Murrow’s televised pursuit and criticism of McCarthy, the senator’s subsequent bumbling response, and the price Murrow ultimately paid for sticking to his guns.

Murrow does a piece on his “See It Now” program about a lieutenant discharged from the armed forces for being a “security risk,” despite never being confronted with any evidence to support the charge. The piece brings criticism from the Pentagon, but Murrow remains undeterred in his efforts to expose such stories and other examples of McCarthy’s scare tactics to the public. Murrow’s big moment comes when he airs a piece attacking McCarthy’s positions using McCarthy’s own words, from television and newspapers, against him. McCarthy records a response that airs on Murrow’s program a month later, in which he falsely accuses Murrow of belonging to Communist groups. Murrow’s coverage leads to a Senate investigation of McCarthy, but by then it’s too late: Under pressure from sponsors, network boss Bill Paley forces Murrow to a Sunday afternoon time slot, and his show is eventually canceled.

But the historical facts don’t make the film any less exciting; oddly, they make it more so. Clooney’s film isn’t a documentary, but a tense drama about a group of men trying to tread carefully enough so that they can spread the truth before their presence is eventually eliminated. Strathairn is brilliant as Murrow, committed but human, and his performance won him the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival. Come February, it could be Strathairn versus Philip Seymour Hoffman for the Academy Award. Clooney has the calm and class to perform well as Friendly without overshadowing Strathairn, an underappreciated character actor, who’s turned in reliable performances in everything from L.A. Confidential to Limbo, and this film could finally do for him what Adaptation did for Chris Cooper.

The script, from Clooney and Grant Heslov, relies heavily on archival footage, especially for McCarthy, who appears in the film only in old newsreels or programs. It’s already been reported that test audiences thought the person playing McCarthy was guilty of “overacting,” which is a cute story, although it makes you wonder if the test audiences were those O.C.-focused high schoolers. But the footage is a smart move, much like Murrow’s original decision to use McCarthy’s own words against him. There’s no way an actor could top McCarthy’s passionate insanity, so why try?

The focused plot is mirrored in Clooney’s decision to shoot the entire thing in black and white. It makes sense for several reasons. First, the heavily used archival footage is black and white, so filming the actors in a similar manner gives the movie a unified look and tone. The lack of color also fits the time frame: like it or not, that’s how people think of the 1950s. It feels more normal to see things from that era in black and white than in color. But the film’s monochromatic set-up also stands as a stark double to the kind of mentality McCarthy was trying to spread, and one that’s never really left us. Right-or-wrong, black-and-white, right-or-left: you can follow it from McCarthy through the Bay of Pigs and all the way to the Patriot Act. If only Clooney were this clever in his other films, maybe he would have avoided making Ocean’s Twelve.

As soon as Murrow and Friendly begin airing anti-McCarthy pieces, they start to feel heat from CBS corporate, whose sponsors aren’t thrilled about being attached to a news show out to rock the boat instead of seeking simply to entertain. Early on, Paley (Frank Langella) asks Murrow when he decided to take sides and editorialize. It’s an important question: What, specifically, should a journalist’s role be? Is it ever justified to go beyond reporting the facts and begin professing an opinion?

The question’s premise is slightly flawed: There’s no such thing as in impartial reporter. Reporters collect as many facts as they can, then attempt to lay them out for the reader as a story. It’s not the reporter’s job to grant every high official the benefit of the doubt, and Clooney has made no secret of his passion for the job of journalists to ask the tough questions, to provide the check that makes possible a balance. Good Night, and Good Luck serves as a powerful reminder of the fear that McCarthy and his ilk spread, but it’s more an indictment of the complacency of today’s mass media and a startling parallel to life in the time of the Patriot Act; when Murrow explains to his colleagues that McCarthy’s tactics are working because “the terror is right here in this room,” it’s impossible not to notice Clooney’s deft use of the word “terror” to call attention to its true nature. It’s just as likely to come from ourselves as from outsiders.

The film is bookended with Murrow’s speech at the Radio-Television News Director Association convention in October 1958. In it, Murrow excoriates the media for being “fat, comfortable, and complacent,” and claims that television is “being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.” If only Murrow could have lived to see the current state of things. In his day, Murrow was lauded for going after McCarthy when no one else had the courage; such actions now would surely be the target of a few hateful hours of punditry on Fox News. In his time, Murrow’s critics claimed he was editorializing and going too far beyond the parameters of his job; but as Murrow himself said, “There is a difference between dissent and disloyalty.” That’s ultimately what Clooney has given us: an ode to dissenting in the interests of freedom. “We must not walk in fear of one another,” Murrow said, words that some Americans, Clooney reminds us, have found hard to hold on to since the fall of 2001.

Murrow’s speech at the convention concludes, complete with the parlance of his time: “I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live.” Without sharp minds guiding us, TV is “merely wires and lights in a box.” Words for my generation to heed; pity I haven’t heard them until now.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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