Wires and Lights in a Box
If you wanna have fun, come home with me.
You can stay all night and play with my TV.
TV is the thing this year, this year.
—Dianne Reeves, “TV is the Thing This Year”
Is this the start? Are you taking sides?
—Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), Good Night, and Good Luck
“David came to the project because he was the cheapest actor we could afford. He was available… If I’d played the role, it would have cost considerably.” Listening to George Clooney’s commentary for the DVD of Good Night, and Good Luck, you get the idea that he’s fond of his own jokes. Lucky for him—and the rest of us—his most excellent partner in filmmaking, Grant Heslov, also appreciates his dry humor. Their collaboration not only conjured a terrific movie, but also a smart, engaging commentary track, part reminiscence (of the shoot, of the McCarthy era, of Clooney’s childhood, watching his newscaster father at work), part entertainment (jokes about the sexiest man alive award, his costarring with Governor Freeze, Clooney’s performance here), part celebration of cast and crew and those remarkable historical figures they perform.
As the film begins, Clooney and Heslov describe the tone they seek: “We sort of wanted it to be a little bit of a Deer Hunter sort of opening. We wanted to be able to spend some time with the characters in the beginning before we introduced them.” And throughout, Good Night, and Good Luck treats its many characters with respect, the only one earning its overt revulsion being the monster Joe McCarthy, who plays himself, via archival footage.
The film evokes a period when media makers and consumers were less cynical and less downtrodden than they seem now. Here, Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) faces his arch-enemy, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, straight, inviting him onto his show, accepting his challenges, and revealing his ugliness in brilliant, precise prose. With CBS more or less behind them, a least for a time, Murrow and his staff, including producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), do their work. Nobly, shrewdly, and above all, tenaciously.
As the film considers a specific moment in Murrow’s career (focused on the journalist’s work and not his life beyond CBS’ offices), it sets up a moral and political opposition: resistance and righteousness versus industry and fear. These terms appear to be neatly embodied in Murrow and McCarthy. Both are products of the early days of tv, both reside in history as larger than life images. But the movie is also more complicated than a look back at an especially golden/scary age. Beyond positing this opposition as one of willful individuals, it also interrogates the cultural and political landscapes that made them possible and perhaps inevitable.
As Clooney notes, McCarthy seemed for a time unstoppable as well. It was only when he overreached obviously—going after Eisenhower, the military, and Secretary Stevens—that his Republican colleagues in the Senate began to stand up to him. Until then, it was Murrow who put himself in front of this runaway bus, making himself visible and vulnerable. When Murrow makes his first broadcast As Clooney describes the broadcast (“I think it’s one of the great moments in television”), he also praises Strathairn’s impeccable performance: “When you’re a director and you can stick a camera on a guy for this long and not move it, it ain’t directing, believe me. It’s about a really good actor saying really good words.”
Cowriters Clooney and Heslov rightly drop names for costumes (Louise Frogley) and cinematography (the exquisite black and white images are by Robert Elswit), further demonstration of the movie’s striking attention to detail. This attention makes it partly reverential, partly probing. It pursues truth through incandescent fiction, at once presuming you get the context and providing some. When Annie Lee Moss testifies (again, in archival footage, to “show actual techniques of these guys”), Clooney underlines that “no one defended her as to being a Communist or not being a Communist, in fact, Murrow says on his show, ‘I do not know whether or not she’s a Communist.’ But she has the right to face her accuser.”
In its earnest, elegant defense of such basic rights—and its use of Annie Lee Moss as the emblem of someone who stood up to McCarthy—Good Night is emphatic about what’s at stake: politics is here defined as images, the business of media, dissemination, consumption, even spin. This is how the world works. Figures are framed repeatedly, by doors, windows, camera lenses and television screens. Murrow first appears in what might be termed the film’s future, 1958, accepting an award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for his remarkable work as a journalist. As he reads his acceptance speech, you realize that this work is not only investigative or even resistant to the powers that be, but also gorgeously written.
Murrow accepts his prize with a mix of arrogance and remonstration. He lectures his fellow newspeople, assembled to venerate him, that their situation is increasingly untenable. As you might infer from Clooney’s own well known views on the states of politics and journalism, the speech resonates for 2005 as much as it must have in the ‘50s. Admitting that he is “seized with an abiding fear regarding what [television is] doing to our society, our culture and our heritage,” Murrow says,
For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word “survive” literally… If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then some courageous soul with a small budget might be able to do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done—and are still doing—to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizens from anything that is unpleasant.
From here Good Night cuts back to 1953, as Murrow’s measured, sustained response to McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee is getting underway. Murrow and See It Now producer Friendly decide to step up when the Senator charges a Navy pilot, Milo Radulovich, with disloyalty. Having been dismissed without trial as a security risk because he refuses to denounce views held by his father and sister, Radulovich agrees to an interview.
When the show catches McCarthy’s attention, Murrow’s own history comes under scrutiny. CBS president William Paley (Frank Langella) calls him into his deeply shadowed office and arranges a punishment: fewer documentary and opinion broadcasts, more episodes of Person to Person, the mostly celebrity interview program that Murrow detested. Good Night includes an ostensibly “easy laugh” bit with Murrow and Liberace, in which the latter professes his desire to “settle down” with a good woman, perhaps Princess Margaret (“She’s looking for her dream man too”), but the underlying point is more cogent than the joke, that the celeb show, then and now, is performance dressed up as confession, artifice pretending to be truth.
The film underlines that McCarthy is a symptom, not the problem in himself. Murrow’s colleagues at CBS, Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) and Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.), are prohibited by contract to be married, and so they remove their rings at work. Another CBS anchor, CBS Views the Press’ Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), is increasingly undone by a New York columnist’s ferocious name-calling, eventually to the point of suicide.
Opposed to Don’s poignant meltdown, Good Night posits Murrow’s implacable, pained crusade. Though perpetually disturbed and ominously chain-smoking (Clooney says they included a Kent cigarettes ad to showcase this problem: “The reason we did this was simple. We know that we were making smoking look sexy, and we felt responsible for it but you can’t change history. And most of these guys actually died of lung cancer. So we thought we’d put in a piece to show how utterly ridiculous the smoking era was, in terms of false information”), the man will not be deterred.
To help make this point, Murrow and Friendly’s efforts in the studio seem almost to pulse with energy. The HUAC footage is also striking, as when McCarthy accuses Moss of being a Communist, a charge so patently baseless that Arkansas Senator John McClellan finally demands that McCarthy and Roy Cohn produce proof. The original tv camera reveals Moss’ surety and the white power brokers’ shuffling their papers, displaying that as his end came near, not only were McCarthy’s seams showing, but also the bigger picture was suddenly visible, exposed by this amoral technology called television.
Also provocative are inserts of jazz singer Dianne Reeves, who appears as a sort of punctuation, singing standards that comment on the action (“Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Who’s Minding the Store”), recording at CBS. While this specifically black woman artist provides insight and hope concerning the film’s gloomy world, the folks in the upper floor offices don’t hear it. Their bottom lining persists.
Lamenting the loss of “people who are uncompromising,” Clooney notes that Murrow and Friendly are, following the showdown with McCarthy, “pushed to the back” by CBS (this even as McCarthy comes under investigation himself). “Everyone seems to be compromising now,” says Clooney. “But, it sure would be nice to have 10 guys who sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re not gonna show cart chases as news,’ because it’s not news… For us, this movie is a success if some kid in Austin, Texas sees it, who is studying journalism, and says, ‘That’s the guy I want to be like.’ Then we win.”