Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Good Night, and Good Luck. is a respectful and sharply-played retelling of the Edward R. Murrow story. Liberals consider the famous journalist a great American man of letters, a shining St. George figure credited with helping to bring down Joe McCarthy, the Bad Man of the 1950s anti-Commie witch hunts. The film is a political statement because "McCarthyism" is still a hotly debated topic. A sizeable section of our country still believes that the Commie hunts and the blacklist didn't happen, or were completely justified.
Realizing that the issue is still far from closed, director and co-writer George Clooney sticks closely to the facts of Murrow's TV battles with McCarthy, avoiding the mistake of overdramatizing events or inventing too many characters and conversations. A fifth of the film plays out on TV screens, using archival broadcasts of Senate investigations to show the real McCarthy in action.
New York, 1953. Successful CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) has a solid partner in Fred W. Friendly (George Clooney). They cross a journalistic line with the decision that the Communist witchhunts have become too destructive to be allowed "fair and and equal coverage." With the grudging permission of network boss Bill Paley, Murrow goes from reporting about the erosion of civil rights to editorializing, taking a position. He airs the test case of a serviceman labeled a 'security risk' without evidence or due process, and Fred stands up to Air Force colonels who warn him to drop the issue. The success of that effort encourages the pair to directly denounce witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy, and they expose the demagogue's sleazy tactics on the air. McCarthy's operatives strike back with lies and innuendo that Murrow is himself a Communist agent. Murrow's associate newsman Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise) is personally targeted as a disloyal traitor by newspaper columnists.
Good Night, and Good Luck. (that's the last time I'll use the period) is certainly one of the better films about 1950s anti-Commie paranoia, a subject that has seen some success, notably with Martin Ritt's 1976 The Front. The entire ugly episode in our history is still highly controversial. Edward R. Murrow was a journalist with an impeccable record of patriotism, and in the early 1950s he risked everything to fight McCarthy. A climate of fear had descended over New York and Hollywood, with people in high-profile businesses fearing for their livelihood. Any association deemed questionable by the Commie hunters could easily result in one's life being ruined. At the top of the chain of self-appointed inquisitioners, Senator McCarthy ran an outrageous self-promoting publicity campaign, making wild claims of Communist infiltration in our government.
Few in authority stood up against McCarthy for fear of being denounced as a "fellow traveler" giving aid and comfort to the enemy -- defined by the inquisitors as anyone with a liberal background or any connection to the Communist fringe. Many simply hoped that McCarthy would burn himself out or that the episode would fade away on its own. Meanwhile, without proof of any kind, the Senator grabbed headlines with scare announcements that convinced millions that the country was on the verge of a Communist takeover, and he alone was fighting the insidious Red invasion.
Murrow's big contribution was to use his media pulpit to oppose McCarthy, basically becoming an advocate, an activist. Murrow's opinionizing can be compared to that of a newspaper editorial. Whether or not this was appropriate conduct for a Television journalist is even more debatable today. Our media outlets are overloaded with on-air personalities advocating editorial positions. Who says which opinions get to dominate the airwaves? Self-appointed watchdogs and cultural agitators? Professional journalists like Murrow? The owners of the networks? The corporate sponsors who underwrite the networks?
Good Night, and Good Luck shows Murrow taking his stand against McCarthy and the effect it had on CBS and his editorial news team. Murrow, Friendly and Co. aren't portrayed as pure-hearted crusaders, as they carefully pick their battles depending on the likelihood of success. They wait to attack until McCarthy's campaigns showed signs of instability. The movie has very few sidebar issues. We follow the story of Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), a married couple on Murrow's team that must keep their relationship a secret as it's against company rules. And we're shown the sad fate of Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), an on-air newsman pilloried by the right-wing press for being soft on Communism. The news staff is reasonably idealistic but just as paranoid as anyone else about losing their jobs. The common denominator among them is a steadfast loyalty to Murrow.
Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly are somewhat idealized as a pro buddy team, risking their careers while quietly joking about who's head will be the first to roll. There's no denying that both men stood up like heroes to outside pressure. Strathairn's portrait of Murrow is if anything too stern and serious. He delivers Murrow's famous on-air monologues with more sober emphasis than Murrow did himself. Photos exist of Murrow joking and carousing with his buddies but the movie chooses to present him as an almost humorless straight arrow. He stares down Frank Langella's icy William Paley as if he were negotiating with the Devil.
Last year, Savant reviewed two wonderful DVD resources on the subject of Murrow and McCarthy and both are highly recommended viewing. The Edward R. Murrow Collection is a multi-disc set containing biographical docus and selected highlights of Murrow's most famous shows; it started as a news mini-series produced in the early 1990s. Point of Order is the famous 1964 Emile de Antonio docu compiling highlights of Joseph McCarthy's investigation in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Seeing the footage of Murrow and McCarthy on these docus puts aspects of Good Night, and Good Luck in a slightly different light. 1
The movie contrasts Murrow's groundbreaking investigative news work with his much softer interviews with stars and personalities, exaggerating his discontent with the latter to make the point that TV is failing in its potential to enlighten the world. Murrow interviewed many more important people than Liberace on that show, appeared to enjoy it and kept it up long after the network pulled away from his socially progressive productions.
A big chunk of Good Night, and Good Luck is made up of TV clips from the CBS archives. Senator McCarthy never appears except on TV monitors. That's a wise decision, as any attempt to portray the man would be open to charges of character assassination. The real McCarthy would be a comical idiot if he didn't wield so much power. Seen on the old kinescopes, he bullies witnesses, spews forth hateful, unsubstantiated accusations and ducks out when attacked. It's hard to believe anyone could behave as he does, but it's true. 2
The kinescope clips chosen for the show miss out on a couple of great opportunities. When we see McCarthy excuse himself from his own grilling of a frightened government employee, a woman, we assume he's ducking out because the high-profile hearing isn't getting anywhere. What the scene doesn't make entirely clear is that McCarthy's incompetent aides have subpoena'd the wrong person. A few moments later, in clips that don't make it into the movie, the other senators are apologizing to the employee and offering her jobs, while making gutless speeches about how decent citizens like her shouldn't be dragged into a kangaroo court.
The movie's first showdown comes when Murrow invites McCarthy to rebut his charges. The Senator uses his air time to instead announce that Murrow is really the ringleader of a Commie conspiracy at CBS. In the unedited kinescopes McCarthy continued with a ridiculous, incoherent song-and-dance lecture with a map of the United States, assuring us that he's been working very hard against incredible odds to fight an insidious invasion, while offering no hint about exactly what he's doing, or what the invasion really is. It's less convincing than the paranoid double-talk in bad science fiction movies.
Some detractors have minimized Edward Murrow's role in bringing down McCarthy, emphasizing the fact that the Senator's defeat actually came when the Army and Joseph Welch nailed him on TV, an event shown in this movie. I think Murrow's eloquence and righteous indignation had a lot to do with turning public opinion against McCarthy, making it politically possible for Eisenhower to give the Army the go-ahead to fight to nail the Senator. He was too big of an embarrassment and he wasn't going to go away on his own.
All the acting is capable, with Oscar-nominated David Strathairn lending his considerable natural authority to the role. George Clooney directs ably and generates a convincingly low-key dramatic atmosphere in the CBS news room. Ray Wise (RoboCop, Twin Peaks) has some effective moments as the ill-fated newsman who couldn't take the pressure, but all of the characters outside of Murrow and Friendly are peripheral. The film is only 93 minutes long.
The scary lesson about McCarthy is that our Democratic system of checks and balances could not stop his rise to power. It required someone to take the risk personally, to 'assassinate' McCarthy in a public forum. Today, there are so many radically different viewpoints in America and so little consensus, that a goodly chunk of political life seems to consist of denunciations, personal attacks and coordinated smear campaigns. Every pundit is somebody's demonized McCarthy, and someone else's Knight-in Armor Murrow.
Warners' DVD of Good Night, and Good Luck is the flawless enhanced presentation one would expect. The B&W images are beautifully rendered. It is evident that heavy-duty digital cleanup has been applied to the old kinescopes of congressional hearings - they no longer look as distorted or damaged as they once did, and the audio is greatly improved as well. The disc's audio track is a beauty. Clooney and Heslov use singer Dianne Reeves to set the 1950s period and mark the story chapters, working her in as a recording artist in another studio down the hall from the news unit. She's introduced in an impressive opening shot. Clooney would seem to be using her presence to give a nod to his aunt Rosemary, the great swing and pop chanteuse, who was a big name in this era.
George Clooney and Grant Heslov offer a rather sparse and jokey commentary that Savant only audited for a few minutes. Perhaps they get into some heavy discussions down the way but there were too many gaps waiting for them to speak. A behind-the-scenes docu shows the real Joe Wershba, a consultant on the movie, discussing the accuracy of the piece. We also see Milo Radulovich, the airman who was the subject of Murrow's first big anti-commie hunt attack. Strathairn, Clooney and Heslov offer comments on their approach to the material. Heslov expresses his concern while writing to not invent too much drama, as noboby really knew what was said behind closed doors.
The film's trailer is also included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Good Night, and Good Luck. rates:
Supplements: Commentary with George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Behind the Scenes interview featurette, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 11, 2006
1. The Army-McCarthy hearings were televised in full in 1954; the similarly serialized Watergate hearings of 1974 were often compared to them. It's amusing (or maybe it isn't) that when Emile de Antonio asked to license the kinescopes of the hearings less than ten years later, CBS thought it had destroyed them. Nobody at the network believed anyone would care to look at them again.
2. Peter Boyle plays McCarthy in a TV movie from 1977 called Tail Gunner Joe; look at all of the "User Comments" for that film in the IMDB listing for that title to see a not-atypical dissenting opinion to the negative portrayal of the Senator. All of this makes John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate seem all the more brave. It was released in 1962, when James Gregory's Senator Iselin character was taken as a crazy exaggeration of McCarthy. It's really not.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson