Good Night, and Good Luck -- movie review by Wendy McElroy

Good Night, and Good Luck” was the television sign-off of Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) — the journalistic pioneer often considered to be the finest broadcast news commentator produced by America.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) is also an Oscar-nominated docudrama that explores the conflict between Murrow (played by David Strathairn) and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy over the anti-Communist crusade he conducted in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Without regard for due process or standards of evidence, McCarthy brought public charges that often ruined the lives of those he accused of subversion.

Hundreds were deported or imprisoned but the most common tactic used was ‘blacklisting’ that is, placing someone’s name on a list that de facto denied him employment in a particular field.

McCarthy’s critics in the media were usually silenced by the fear of being blacklisted. Nevertheless, Murrow and his producer Fred W. Friendly (George Clooney) decided to use their newsmagazine broadcast See It Now on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) to confront the senator repeatedly.

On March 9, 1954, in a broadcast that has been called television’s finest hour, Murrow stated,

The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly…. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.
We will not walk in fear, one of another…. We are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular…. We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

The show prompted more than 10,000 phone calls and 70,000 letters and telegrams — 15 to 1 in favor of Murrow. On the street, truck drivers yelled out, “Good show, Ed!” On December 2, 1954, the Senate formally reprimanded McCarthy by a vote of 67 to 22 for conduct unbecoming a senator. In speaking truth to power, Murrow hastened McCarthy’s downfall and may have been pivotal in it.

Good Night, and Good Luck functions on several levels. It is a cautionary tale about unrestrained political power and its use of public hysteria. It is also a tribute to the power of a dissenting media to expose and correct injustice. As such, the movie reproaches today’s journalism that embraces safety.

First and foremost, however, Good Night, and Good Luck is superb art. Director and co-writer George Clooney presents an epic drama within a deliberately claustrophobic format; the movie is like a hurricane raging within a tin can. It leaves the viewer with a sense of raw energy about to break free and, so, infuses tension.

The epic aspect is the conflict between larger-than-life Murrow and McCarthy, between truth and authority. The claustrophobia comes from the tight script and filming restraints. Good Night, and Good Luck focuses narrowly on a five-month period from late 1953 to early 1954 during which See It Now aired four programs on McCarthy. The grainy black-and-white presentation eliminates distractions, as do the constant close-ups. Most of the story unfolds within the cramped set that replicates CBS’s 1950s newsrooms and studios. The cast is limited. With only two brief subplots, the script moves quickly in a straight line.

Murrow versus McCarthy

As a cautionary tale, the movie opens with a noteworthy moment in Murrow’s career. It is October 23, 1958; the conflict with McCarthy has been over for years. Murrow is now accepting an award from the Radio Television News Directors Association and Foundation. His acceptance speech pleads for television to present responsible journalism rather than mere entertainment.

The movie then fades back in time to the CBS news department of October 14, 1953. Two employees are debating the loyalty oath being demanded by CBS as a condition of continued employment. In another room, a film clip of McCarthy is playing to a table of journalists. (In a brilliant move, real footage of the senator is used throughout the movie. Clooney was subsequently criticized for allowing an actor to “go over the top” in depicting McCarthy.)

Thereafter, Murrow and Friendly discuss a news story; Milo Radulovich has been discharged from the U.S. Air Force because his father subscribed to a Serbian newspaper and, so, he is deemed to be a security risk. Murrow explains,
The charges were in a sealed envelope. No one even saw them…. He [Radulovich] was declared guilty without a trial and told, if he wanted to keep his job, he had to denounce his father. He told them to take a hike.

Murrow was no stranger to controversy; he was among the first in the media to speak out against racial segregation and apartheid. Now he sees something fundamentally wrong with a government agency’s demanding that a son denounce his father, especially on the basis of sealed evidence.

They decide to dedicate a program to Radulovich. Predictably, rumors circulate about Murrow’s un-Americanism, prompting “his team” at CBS to debate whether they should continue to attack McCarthy. When a co-worker offers to resign because his ex-wife has Communist ties, Murrow replies,
If none of us had ever read a dangerous book or had a friend who was different, if we never joined an organization that advocated change, we’d all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants. We’re going to go with the story because the terror is right here in this room.

Clooney, an outspoken critic of the media’s treatment of the war in Iraq, is almost certainly presenting a world of courageous journalism in order to make us scrutinize our own.

Most modern journalists pose no threat to authority. Some are simply rank-and-file people who punch a clock. They take the press releases and statements of politicians at face value because the job is easier that way. Others are self-interested and deliberately spin stories to glean approval and access to the powers that be for exclusives. Then there are conscientious journalists who get punished. Perhaps editors rein them in after a phone call from ‘above’; perhaps they lose access to the press conferences necessary to their jobs. Eventually, they stop asking the hard questions.

Once in awhile, there is a Murrow.

A final level on which Good Night, and Good Luck functions is as an expose of how unrestrained political power establishes itself.

A key to McCarthy’s success was his exploitation of the public hysteria over Communism; terrified people were willing to trade liberty for safety. Good Night, and Good Luck takes the hysteria as a given.

Our first glimpse of CBS is through text-over on the screen that informs us of a political atmosphere overwhelmed by fear of Communism.

The movie then turns to another precondition of power: legitimacy. To wield his power, McCarthy had to be seen as a protector, not an ambitious or out-of-control politician. Our first glimpse of him is at a speaking engagement where he receives a flattering introduction, after which he assumes the podium as a humble man of the people. This is the image beamed into people’s living rooms.

Image is everything.

When Murrow first considers the Radulovich story, he wonders aloud, “Let’s see if he is any good on camera.” Radulovich is very good indeed; he comes across as an ordinary man concerned for his family. He declares, “If I am being judged on my relatives, are my children going to be asked to denounce me? Are they going to be judged on what their father was labeled?… I see a chain reaction that has no end to anybody, for anybody.” A sympathetic victim of McCarthyism is pleading for fairness toward children. The senator’s image is acquiring tarnish.

The fall of McCarthy

The next image Murrow presents is a disheveled McCarthy at the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations where he rails against “bleeding hearts who scream and cry about our methods.” McCarthy is attacking a general whom he accuses of protecting Communist sympathizers. The viewing public now sees images of McCarthy as an enemy of children and American generals.

In that same footage, McCarthy makes blatantly false accusations. When Murrow corrects him on air, McCarthy is revealed either as a liar or as an ignorant man who prosecutes people on the basis of ignorance.

McCarthy must respond. At first, he suggests that urbane and intellectual William F. Buckley rebut Murrow on air. But CBS chief William Palely (Frank Langella) refuses. McCarthy must speak for himself.

As McCarthy delays, Murrow continues to air footage of the senator’s deteriorating behavior — especially at the notorious hearing of Annie Lee Moss. Moss is a demure, elderly black woman who is being “tried” on a secret report from an FBI agent who does not testify. When the hearing goes badly, McCarthy is so rattled that he refers to a pressing engagement and flees the room. Thereafter, a presiding senator raises strong objections to “trying” Moss on hearsay rather than sworn testimony, which is her constitutional right. The presiding senator uses the word “evil” to describe the fact that accusations, once uttered, cannot be stricken from the press or the public mind.

McCarthy finally responds to Murrow. McCarthy desperately needs to refute the specific criticisms against him but, instead, he launches a personal attack, calling Murrow “the leader of a jackal pack.”

Murrow’s counterresponse is factual and dignified; he cites several errors of fact on McCarthy’s part.

Thus television established the senator not only as the enemy of children, generals, and elderly blacks but also of facts and the Constitution. During the subsequent congressional investigation into McCarthy’s conduct (the Army-McCarthy hearings), the Army’s head attorney, Joseph Welch, famously declared to the senator, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

By this point, most of America applauded the question. Why? Because McCarthy had lost legitimacy.

Good Night, and Good Luck is not without flaws. It leaves the impression that Murrow fought a lone battle of dissent. In fact, columnists such as Walter Lippmann and broadcasters such as Eric Sevareid had done earlier critical commentaries on McCarthy. Indeed, McCarthy may have lost much of his credibility by the time of Murrow’s broadcasts.

The movie is also unfairly critical of CBS, Paley, and Murrow’s sponsor, Alcoa. When most media giants bowed to McCarthyism, CBS and Paley allowed Murrow to broadcast freely. Although Alcoa temporarily withdrew its funding, it quickly reassumed sponsorship after the McCarthy programs. Yet the movie depicts Paley as a compromising tyrant and suggests that Alcoa utterly abandoned Murrow.

But such flaws do not mar the overall excellence.

Good Night, and Good Luck ends as it began, with Murrow’s 1958 speech. He (and the movie) concludes,
“To those who say people wouldn’t look [at informative television]; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention…. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

Interestingly, Clooney clips off the last sentences of Murrow’s actual presentation. They are:
There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful. Stonewall Jackson, who knew something about the use of weapons, is reported to have said, “When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.” The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival.

Perhaps Clooney judged the actual conclusion to be too heavy-handed a reference to the parallel he is clearly drawing between Murrow’s courage and the meekness with which today’s journalists approach the war in Iraq. If today’s world is a battle for survival, too many journalists are merely acting as witless stenographers who take dictation from government officials.