This just might do nobody any good.
—Edward R. Murrow, RTNDA Convention (1958)
Once upon a time, consumers were not cynical. In the much-missed olden days, folks read newspapers and books, watched tv and listened to politicians give speeches, and didn’t expect to be disappointed, sickened, or inadvertently entertained. At least this is the story that circulates these days, usually inspiring nostalgia, guilt, and regret.
Such inspiration is only part of the point of Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s portrait of Edward R. Murrow (played by magnificent David Strathairn). As the film takes up a specific moment in Murrow’s career—and it is focused fairly relentlessly on the journalist’s work and not anything to do with his life beyond the 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 his arch-enemy, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy (who appears only in news footage here, emphasizing his status as image—self-made, demonized, inflated by media—even at the time he was alive). But the movie is more complicated. Beyond positing this opposition as one of willful individuals, it also means to interrogate the cultural and political landscapes that make them possible and perhaps inevitable.
Shot in exquisite black and white (by Robert Elswit), the film is partly reverential, partly probing. It pursues truth through incandescent fiction, asking you to decipher detail borderlines and to provide context (the film plunks down in the midst of the McCarthy business, without describing what led to it). At the same time, it is emphatic about what’s at stake. Its historical 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 begins to read from his acceptance speech, you realize that this work is not only investigative or even resistant to the powers that be, but gorgeously written. If you come away from Good Night, and Good Luck with nothing else, you will come away with renewed appreciation for luminous prose.
Murrow here accepts his prize with a mix of arrogance and remonstration. He points out to his fellow news people, 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 ‘58. 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 there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show. 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.
It’s frankly stunning how relevant these words sound today. As if to assuage your recognition of same, Good Night cuts back in time to 1953, just as Murrow’s measured, sustained response to McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee is getting underway. Murrow and See It Now producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) are contemplating the Senator’s continued public pummeling of citizens, as it has recently extended to a Navy pilot, Milo Radulovich (who appears in news footage). Dismissed without trial as a security risk, because he refuses to denounce views held b his father and sister, Radulovich agrees to an interview, which Murrow and Friendly decide to air despite objections by CBS’ news division president Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels) (Murrow and Friendly pay the controversial show’s lost advertising revenue themselves).
The show—and especially Murrow’s introduction and closing thoughts—catch McCarthy’s attention, which means that Murrow’s own history comes under scrutiny and CBS president William Paley (Frank Langella) calls him into his deeply shadowed office and arranges a punishment: fewer documentary/opinion broadcasts and 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, shielding “sensitive citizens.”
Repression and fear are hardly the sole province of McCarthy, of course. Murrow’s colleagues at CBS, Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) and Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.) are prohibited by contract to be married, and so they daily hide their status (“Name me one other wife,” she jokes, “who reminds her husband to take off is wedding ring before he goes to the office”). Another CBS anchor, CBS Views the Press’ Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise, playing yet another version of Leland Palmer, not unwelcome), 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 cool, implacable crusade. Though perpetually disturbed and ominously chain-smoking (the film includes a commercial for the benefits of cigarettes, meaning, again, this was another story no one challenged back then), the man will not be deterred, though he understands the personal stakes and McCarthy’s methods (and indeed, insinuations circulate that Murrow leans pink). The harrowing effect is displayed on Hallenbeck’s face, but Murrow holds firm, his face framed and doubled and even tripled in studio set imagery, as he reads his editorials and the monitors capture his performance, watched by newsroom staff as they anxiously await the inevitable telephone fallout.
Such visual machinery helpfully integrates past and present, making Murrow and Friendly’s efforts in the studio seem almost to pulse with energy. Similarly, the selected images drawn from the HUAC hearings are often riveting, as when McCarthy accuses Annie Lee Moss of being a communist, a charge so patently baseless that committee member and Arkansas Senator John McClellan finally demands that McCarthy and lawyer Roy Cohn produce proof. The original tv camera reveals Moss’ steely surety and the white power brokers’ scrambling about in their chairs, suggesting that as his end came near, not only were these individual seams showing, but also the bigger picture was suddenly visible, at least by those paying attention to this wondrous technology called television.
More artificial and so more 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”), apparently recording in a different area at CBS. Creative as this device might have seemed on paper (and as great as Reeves sounds) the point seems slammed home. While artists—and here, no coincidence, a black woman artist—might have and even pronounce insight into the bluesy world we all inhabit, the folks in the upper floor offices don’t hear it. Their bottom lining and the decimating of “Indians,” literal and metaphorical, persists. And so, perhaps the slamming is exactly right.