Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Directed by George Clooney
The film begins and ends with a meeting of television employees gathered to honor Edward R. Murrow, whose program, See It Now, was a signature feature of the fledgling CBS network. Murrow takes the opportunity to deliver a speech warning that television might become a tribune of the trivial rather than a fearless and innovative public servant; immediately, we think of what that medium has become today, and we laugh -- or shudder.
The core of the movie revolves around the CBS staff’s struggle with how and whether to confront the McCarthy-style hysteria that distorted politics, while destroying careers and lives. We see the lines of power between owner, employees, and advertiser, a dynamic that has defined journalism from its inception. For those who pay attention, this is the basic frame that has never altered and that today explains the thing that typical “journalism” has become. The choice that CBS and Murrow made was originally not to directly challenge McCarthy. Instead, Murrow publicized the case of Milo Radulovich, an American reserve Air Force lieutenant accused in 1953 of being a communist.
It was a good choice; Radulovich was not allowed to see the charges brought against him (sound familiar?), was not allowed a hearing (hear an echo?), and was told that he would be expelled from the Air Force because of his “associations.” This was grist for Murrow’s very middle-of-the-road appeal to traditional protections of due process and the dangerous consequences of erasing them via anonymous processes. The ensuing publicity resulted in Radulovich’s being reinstated in the Air Force, and this laid the groundwork for a more direct confrontation.
It is important to note that Murrow was far from the first public figure or journalistic source to criticize Senator Joe McCarthy. Still, his show had considerable cachet, as did the up-and-coming medium of television. His was not the stroke that broke McCarthy’s hold on the throat of civil liberties -- but it was a unique and powerful contribution to the Senator’s political defeat.
The acting in this movie is credible; its use of historical footage of Senator McCarthy during hearings and solo speech on television works well in marking the progression of events, as the film reverts to the interplay of its actors. There are other, passing ironies and insights available to the alert viewer; in one of his “person to person” editions of his program, Murrow is seen interviewing Liberace. When the closeted pianist/showman is asked when he might get married, Liberace remarks that Princess Margaret is available, and she seems like a nice person. While this sort of exchange has a wry humor about it, it’s well to remember just how carefully gay people had to submerge their identities -- and too often, still do.
Good Night, and Good Luck is a commentary on what happens when civil liberties are attacked, people allow themselves to be ruled by fear, and what news becomes when it is shaped by the agenda of partisan owners and self-interested shareholders. It is a warning from half a century ago of how things can go astray, and the urgency of public activism to protect our remaining freedoms.
Dan Raphael has been an activist since the Vietnam War was heating up and is active with the Green Party of the United States.
* “Good Night, and Good Luck”: Joe McCarthy Rides Again by Bernard Weiner
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