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George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck
Liberal broadcaster as cold-war hero

Review by William Keach | October 21, 2005 | Page 9

Good Night, and Good Luck, directed by George Clooney, starring David Strathairn.

GEORGE CLOONEY'S film about revered CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow focuses on two political developments of the 1950s: Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch-hunt, and corporate control of television at a time when it was becoming a dominant force in U.S. culture.

These developments are connected to each other and, as Clooney clearly wants us to realize, to the present environment of Bush's "war on terror" and USA PATRIOT Act.

The film's striking black-and-white style and its emphasis on the crowded, closed environment of the CBS studio in New York successfully evoke the tense, claustrophobic historical moment in 1953-54 when Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, decided to stand up to McCarthy in their highly successful weekly program See It Now.

Murrow is brilliantly portrayed by David Strathairn, best known for his roles in John Sayles films such as Matewan, City of Hope, and Limbo. Strathairn's voice isn't as deep as Murrow's, but everything else--the gravely literate but unpretentious and straightforward manner, the slicked-down hair, the ever-present cigarette--are just right.

Murrow had gained enormous credibility with the American public, first as a radio war correspondent based in London during the Second World War, then as host of a radio news and public affairs program called Hear It Now, adapted to television as See It Now in 1951. "Good night, and good luck" was Murrow's familiar sign-off line.

In October 1953, Murrow devoted an episode of See It Now to McCarthy's effort to drive a working-class reserve officer named Milo Radulovich out of the Air Force for being a security risk. This led to a series of programs in which McCarthy's crazed fanaticism and bullying tactics were exposed to millions of viewers.

As director, Clooney makes powerful use of archival footage from these programs. The film also generates considerable power in the confrontations between Murrow and Friendly (played by Clooney) and their Republican boss at CBS, William Paley (played by Frank Langella). Paley can see the integrity and even the audience appeal of what Murrow is doing, but he's of course worried about key sponsors such as Alcoa and (ironically, given all the smoking in the film) Kent Cigarettes.

The film's narrative of Murrow's determination to take on McCarthy is framed by a somewhat later historical moment, Murrow's speech in 1958 to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Chicago in which he denounced commercial television's profit-driven determination "to distract, delude, amuse and insulate."

By the time Murrow gave this speech, Paley had long since decided to move See It Now out of its weekly prime-time slot and relegate it to a commercially safer position as an occasional Sunday afternoon show.

Good Night, and Good Luck does a great job of making "McCarthyism" real to filmgoers who may have only the vaguest sense of where the term comes from. The footage of Radulovich and members of his family speaking about the effect of McCarthy's attacks on their lives is inescapably disturbing, as is the footage of Annie Lee Moss, a Black Pentagon Signal Corps employee, defending herself before McCarthy's Senate committee.

And then there is the specter of McCarthy himself, obviously aroused to a frenzy as he attacks suspected Communists and journalists who dare to stand up for basic legal and civil rights.

Where Clooney's film shows its limitations is in its tight-focused celebration of Murrow as a hero for his own time and for ours. Apart from the archival film clips, the film communicates little of the broader social and political reality within which McCarthy's attacks took place. There's no sense of the effects of anti-communist paranoia on labor unions, for instance, or on schools and universities.

As for Murrow himself, you would never know from this film that other mainstream journalists had already taken on McCarthy well before the 1953-54 See It Now series. Good Night, and Good Luck confines itself politically to Murrow's version of a middle-of-the-road, patriotic liberalism that basically accepts American capitalism.

Murrow went after McCarthy not because he saw any real merit in the position of people interested in fundamentally changing U.S. society, but because McCarthy had made the cause of American anti-Communism both dangerous and ridiculous.

Murrow remained on cozy terms with the Pentagon throughout his career. He left CBS during the Kennedy administration to become head of the U.S. Information Agency, the main foreign policy propaganda arm of the federal government. Despite these limitations, this is a film everyone should see and discuss.

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