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Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 07 October 2005
This is a much needed movie. It hearkens back to when the nation needed reminding that dissent does not mean disloyalty—a lesson it sorely needs to learn again right now, undoubtedly one of the reasons the film was made. In the early 1950s, the U.S. was swept by a wave of unnecessary anti-Communist hysteria, and the principal surfer on that dark and sinister wave was Senator Joe McCarthy (R, Wisconsin).

Back in the 1930s, when the world was a different place and suffering under the tensions and financial disasters of the Great Depression, people were seeking answers to the problems that had created that socio-economic disaster. This is why so many embraced socialism and communism; they loved the U.S. and wanted to make it a better place. These philosophies seemed to offer solutions.

But this boomeranged back on them in the late 1940s and the launching of the Cold War. Suddenly, the Russians—our allies in World War II—were our principal enemies. Nuclear weapons became a threat. Large and small rebellions erupted around the world. And in the U.S., too many people reacted in destructive ways to their fears that the Soviets were bent on world domination. It wasn’t illegal to be a member of the Communist Party, but the FBI, always diligent in this area, soon had the names of every member of the CPUSA, and of the “fellow travelers” as well.

A groundless terror that “Reds” in show business might be exercising subtle powers of persuasion to turn Americans into Godless Commies seized the financial backers of television and movies. The military got into the act.

This movie focuses on a few men working for CBS in New York, essentially led by producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) and newscaster/journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), famed for his brilliant, eloquent newscasts from London during the Blitz. It opens with an October, 25, 1958 dinner that’s a tribute to Murrow. His cogent speech opens the film, and closes it later.

Murrow and Friendly run both “Person to Person,” a ground-breaking but essentially trivial interview show, and “See It Now,” an evening show dealing more closely with events of the day than the standard news broadcasts can. Murrow and Friendly and their loyal staff are disturbed when Navy pilot Milo Radulovich is kicked out of the service because his father read a Serbian newspaper, and his sister was a left-winger. The Navy representatives refuse to allow Friendly to see the charges, and make veiled threats.
Even though Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels), one of the CBS bosses, is worried that there might be repercussions from a show centering on Radulovich, they do it anyway. Murrow and Friendly offer to personally cover any losses in CBS advertising revenue. But they’re more concerned about McCarthy’s erratic but persistent charges and claims—for which he never offers any evidence. He’s working primarily on establishing guilt by association, and destroying lives and careers as he plunges onward.

Because of the Radulovich show, McCarthy (himself, seen in newsreel footage) accuses Murrow of being a Communist sympathizer since 1935. CBS chief William Paley (Frank Langella), though supportive of Murrow and Friendly, warns them that their staff has to be 100% cleared. Immediately after (in movie terms) Friendly announces that the next “See It Now” will focus on Joe McCarthy.

Murrow and Friendly ask their staff to reveal any associations, anything at all, that McCarthy might latch onto and use against them. Joe Wershba (Robert Downey, Jr.) is worried someone might learn that, contrary to CBS policy, he and fellow staffer Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) are secretly married. Newscaster Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise) reveals that he did flirt with communist causes in his youth.

Murrow feels they must go ahead because, he tells his concerned staff, “the terror is right here in this room.” So they do their broadcast on McCarthy, offering the senator a broadcast of his own as a rebuttal. There are repercussions, but the “See It Now” broadcast on McCarthy was the beginning of the end for the ruthless senator.

George Clooney’s father is a newscaster; it’s not surprising he was brought up to regard Edward R. Murrow as the pinnacle of broadcast journalism excellence—because that’s what he was, and this film demonstrates it to generations unlucky enough never to have seen Murrow do his work live, right before their eyes. David Strathairn is brilliant as Murrow; he gets the clear, authoritative manner just right without trying to do a slavish impression of Murrow. The behind-the-scenes footage centering on the McCarthy program is brilliantly recreated. We can see how viewers at home regarded Murrow as serious, well-informed, calm and unflappable. But we now see that he was sweating bullets; he knew he was treading on dangerous ground—but he went ahead anyway.

Clooney directs in a manner matching Murrow’s own approach. His movie is cool and careful, understated and intelligent. It’s so convincingly realistic that it seems like real life happening before our eyes. The cast matches this style with restrained, realistic performances; no one is a standout other than Strathairn, and he is because Murrow was.

It’s hard to predict the impact of a film like this. As can be seen on the Internet Movie Database page for this film, the right-wingers are already starting to froth at the mouth. They point out that McCarthy was actually right about some people, although what “right” means in this case is murky. They fail to understand that even those he was right about did not constitute a threat to this country, and that he heedlessly destroyed the lives of many loyal Americans who happened to disagree with his political agenda. McCarthy ended up destroying himself during the famed Army-McCarthy hearings—but the “See It Now” shows clearly marked the beginning of his downfall. (His solo show did him no favors.)

We live in turbulent times, not just world-wide but here at home as well. The country is more divided now than at any time since the Red Scare era, since the heyday of Senator McCarthy. Again, people who simply express disagreement with the current powers that be are accused of being traitors. As Murrow said, dissent does not mean disloyalty. This movie is partly an effort to establish that idea all over again. It does it in a dramatically focused, realistic and convincing context, and in so doing is one of the best films of the year. Do not wait to see this one on home video; please—“See It Now.”

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