They took on the government with nothing but the truth.
A person like George Clooney must have been raised on stories about the old fights for what is good and decent. He’s the son of Nick Clooney, a liberal television journalist, who I’m sure told his son early on about what kind of threat Senator Joseph McCarthy posed to American democracy, as well as the tragic consequences of his witch-hunt for alleged communists in the 1950s. In his second film as director, George Clooney set his sights on telling the story about a reporter who used a new medium to expose the rot in one of the government branches.
Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) made his mark as a correspondent for CBS in London during World War II, and in 1953 when our story begins he was working on a show called See It Now. As Senator McCarthy’s congressional hearings increased its activities, Murrow decided that this is not the time to stay silent. Along with producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), Murrow made a report on Milo Radulovich, a man who was discharged from the Air Force because his father subscribed to Serbian newspapers. There was nothing strange about that since the man had emigrated from Yugoslavia, but the political atmosphere in America at the time made it look suspicious. Murrow’s report helped people realize just how absurd Radulovich’s discharge was. CBS was subjected to pressure from the Air Force but stood their ground, and Radulovich was soon reinstated. Then came the March, 1954 landmark broadcast entitled “A Report On Senator Joseph McCarthy” where Murrow launched a careful but devastating attack simply by showing clips featuring the Senator talking. His unattractive demeanor and the ugly content of his words made viewers uncomfortable and Murrow’s subsequent editorializing (something that was fiercely debated prior to the broadcast) were effective blows that helped end the Senator’s career.
Sparse yet credible sets
We also follow two reporters (Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) who are married yet have to conceal that because of CBSrules against married co-workers; it’s an interesting detail in the general description of an era that is long gone. We’re also introduced to reporter Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise) who committed suicide possibly because of accusations that he was a communist sympathizer; that story serves as a reminder of the tragedies that McCarthy caused. The film didn’t cost that much to make; it looks like it was based on a play, with sparse yet credible sets portraying the CBS locales and plenty of dialogue (much of which has been lifted from Murrow’s broadcasts). The black-and-white cinematography is in line with the news footage, taking us to this era and helping us understand just how brave Murrow and his colleagues were in attacking a powerful man who just as easily could have ruined their careers. Thankfully, McCarthy was too busy doing that to himself; he died disgraced in 1957. Strathairn shines in the role of a lifetime as Murrow, the chain-smoking reporter who as early as 1953 saw the virtues and dangers of television, something that still hasn’t changed. Wise is also very good as Hollenbeck, the CBS anchorman who simply wasn’t strong enough to face his critics.
Murrow used to end his broadcasts with a “good night, and good luck”. These days, Keith Olbermann keeps the line alive on his MSNBC show. Murrow’s legacy is very much alive, not least his views on what purpose television should have and how the government uses fear as a way of controlling its citizens. 50 years later, his warnings are still valid.
Good Night, And Good Luck. 2005-U.S. 93 min. B/W. Produced by Grant Heslov. Directed by George Clooney. Screenplay: George Clooney, Grant Heslov. Cinematography: Robert Elswit. Cast: David Strathairn (Edward R. Murrow), Patricia Clarkson (Shirley Wershba), George Clooney (Fred Friendly), Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey, Jr., Frank Langella.
Venice: Best Film, Actor (Strathairn), Screenplay.
Quote: “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 will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, we will remember 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. This is no time for men who oppose Sen. McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve.” (Strathairn on the air)
Last word: “The secret to Murrow is that there is a sadness to him. You always felt that he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and that’s not something that you can act, it’s something that you just sort of are. David Strathairn has it… that sense that everything he does he’ll do for your benefit, but it hurts. No one thinks that way of me. Also David’s face; there’s this elegance to him that’s not pretty at all, but it’s stunning.” (Clooney, The Guardian)