Culture > Movies

Good Night, And Good Luck

Movies | It's not a bad movie, just a bad history lesson

Issue: "Stand in the gap," Nov. 5, 2005

George Clooney's Good Night, And Good Luck. is not a bad movie, but it is most certainly bad history. Mr. Clooney's exercise in hero worship-in reverent awe of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow-was clearly devised not as a history lesson but as a modern parable to indict a variety of favored targets of the left.

Mr. Clooney is a fine propagandist, though. His film is stylish (shot in evocative black and white), efficient (finishing in a brisk 93 minutes), entertaining even (a competent director, Mr. Clooney employs many fine actors). And, watching it without much in the way of historical reference points, as many will, Good Night, And Good Luck. is quite convincing. Crusading network journalist, good. Mean-spirited, revoltingly dumb senator, bad. End of story.

The senator in question is, of course, Joseph McCarthy, leader of the anti-communist "witch hunts" in the 1950s that, apparently, had every American hiding under a desk for fear that he, too, would be fingered as a Red spy. (Or was there another reason for those silly schoolroom drills?)

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Edward R. Murrow, played by the estimable David Strathairn, sees the injustice of McCarthy's bullying ways, makes a measured decision to take him on ("I've searched my conscience," Mr. Strathairn intones several times), and risks his career and the reputation of CBS in bringing the monster down.

Good Night (rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language) bristles with the excitement of last-minute backroom decisions and the uncertainty of live television. Mr. Strathairn is surrounded by quality supporting players, including Mr. Clooney as his producer and chief ally Fred Friendly; Robert Downey Jr. as Joe Wershba; Jeff Daniels as Sig Mickelson; and Frank Langella, particularly good as CBS chief William Paley.

An actor playing Sen. McCarthy is conspicuously absent from that list. McCarthy appears on screen only in archival footage. The point, one assumes, is to follow Ed Murrow's example and let the senator hang himself with his own words. Of course, this immediately clues us in to Mr. Clooney's agenda. For one, those words are carefully chosen for maximum, indignation-producing effect.

The first reaction of many may be, "Wow! What a sad chapter in U.S. history! What relevance for our modern time!" That relevance is underscored in phrasing one imagines will appear underlined, italicized, and in bold in the film's subtitles when the DVD is released. "We will not walk in fear, one of another," says Murrow. "We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies."

Lines like these are supposed to cause oohs and ahhs from the audience (as indeed they did) at the recognition of Murrow's prescience and to draw parallels to everything from the Patriot Act to the war in Iraq. In what is perhaps the central scene in Good Night, Murrow, Friendly, and their cohorts make the bold decision to move forward in their full-frontal assault on McCarthy. Murrow suggests that anyone who advocates change has reason to fear, culminating with a bold statement of why CBS must move forward. "The terror," he says, "is right here in this room." Gasp! He said terror! How did he know?!

What Mr. Clooney fails to acknowledge at all is that however ham-fisted and unpleasant McCarthy's methods were, the threat of communism was real. Audiences who don't or chose not to remember the Cold War and the millions enslaved under communist totalitarian states will walk away with the impression that McCarthy was simply a paranoid loon bent on destroying lives. While some might argue that the intimate focus of Mr. Clooney's film doesn't need to concern itself with matters so far afield, the reality of the threat couldn't be more relevant-particularly since Mr. Clooney is clearly reaching for modern consequence.

Good Night, And Good Luck. is an entertaining, astutely made oversimplification of complex events.


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