Directed by George Clooney. USA. 2005.

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"No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices." - Edward R. Murrow

Framed by a 1958 speech to broadcast executives in which he warned that the media was losing its soul to commercial interests, George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck shows the candor of CBS-TV newsman Edward R. Murrow and, by implication, how it has gone missing in today's media journalism. Clooney attempts to recreate the political and social climate of the early 1950s when red baiting and security madness generated by the Korean and Cold Wars dominated the headlines by dramatizing Murrow's conflict with the Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious anti-Communist crusader from Wisconsin. The film is shot in black and white with a hand-held camera and has a 50s feel with an all-male, all-white television studio, jazz interludes, heavy cigarette smoking and Scotch drinking, and Liberace, in an interview, forced by convention to lie about his marriage plans.  

Good Night, and Good Luck concentrates on two broadcasts: one dealing with Milo Radulovich, an Air Force Reserve weatherman who had been discharged from the service after his father and sister were accused of Communist ties; the other challenging Senator McCarthy on "See It Now". David Straitharn in an Oscar-nominated performance as the beleaguered reporter, captures Murrow's mannerisms: his clipped cadences, his chain smoking habits, and his no nonsense delivery but does not project much warmth and the film, for all its timeliness and potential for high drama, feels strangely flat. 

Murrow took on McCarthy after the Junior Senator accused him of being on the Soviet payroll because of his participation in a summer exchange program in Moscow during the thirties. Murrow retaliated with a "See It Now" broadcast about the Senator's tactics in which McCarthy plays himself through the use of archival film clips. He then invited McCarthy to respond which he did several weeks later but instead of answering Murrow's charges, he continued to attack the newsman as a dupe of Communists. The rebuttal made it clear that McCarthy was a bully who had no respect for individual rights or the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution and approval ratings for the series of shows ran as high as ten to one in favor of Murrow. These broadcasts, however, brought Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) into conflict with CBS President William Paley (Frank Langella) and eventually cost him his regularly weekly TV spot. 

The film zeroes in on these two programs but does not mention the context in which the events took place. For those in need of a reminder, in 1949, President Truman initiated a program that required a loyalty investigation of every person entering civilian employment in the executive branch of the Federal Government, the Rosenberg's were executed for espionage, suspected subversives were questioned before The House Un-American Activities Committee beginning in 1947, and Senator Pat McCarran further trampled on constitutional rights with his Internal Security Act of 1950. By omitting these details, the film suggests that McCarthy created the climate of fear, rather than exploiting it for his own personal gain.

The film also implies that Murrow was the David who slew Goliath but the truth is more complex. There were many others who spoke out against McCarthy long before Murrow such as Professor Henry Steele Commager of Columbia, New York Post editor James Wechsler, and Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson who said in 1952, "The whole notion of loyalty inquisitions is a national characteristic of the police state, not of democracy and pointed out the dangers of "phony patriots", "ill-informed censors" and "self-appointed thought police". While Murrow did stand up to McCarthy, it was pretty late in the game and, while it took considerable courage, did not make much of a dent in McCarthy's armor. It was left to McCarthy himself to self-destruct with an ill-advised attack on Eisenhower (who had never challenged McCarthy) and the U.S. Army. 

Where Good Night, and Good Luck does succeed is in making us painfully aware that the forthright journalism personified by Murrow has gone the way of the hula-hoop. In his exposé of McCarthy, Murrow challenged America to distinguish between dissent and disloyalty, a distinction that is more relevant than ever today. He said, "We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of the Republic to abdicate his responsibility." That statement should be required reading in today's corporate media boardrooms.


Howard Schumann
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