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Thursday, May 4, 2006
A broadcast from the past to the present
One of the side effects of living in a postmodern democracy is the notion that for every viewpoint, there is an equal and opposite viewpoint. For every evangelical, a secular humanist; for every neo-con, a liberal; for every latte-slurper, a Bud swiller. And yet, while a full spectrum of opinions is a good thing, this dichotomy can become a trap of sorts. In the desire to be objective, the media these days often provide two viewpoints, when in fact only one can be true.
Are we better off having invaded Iraq or not? Rational minds can argue the merits of this position either way. But what about this: Did the Holocaust occur? Is it "objective" to include the deliberately false view that it didn't? Many Holocaust historians refuse requests to appear on TV with Holocaust deniers, out of the fear that people will start to think that this is a topic open to serious debate. When must the media put its foot down and call a spade a spade?
It's this question that Hollywood's leading liberal, George Clooney, addresses in his second film as a director, "Good Night, and Good Luck." The film looks at America in 1954, in the grips of Cold War paranoia, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy led his notorious "witch hunts," seeking out supposed communist sympathizers in every corner of American society. (And cinema fans will know that a good number of writers and directors were "blacklisted," effectively shut out of the industry, due to the senator's inquisition.)
The hero of the movie is the godfather of tele-journalism, Edward R. Murrow. A news reporter who made his name with his authoritative coverage of World War II in Europe, he was, by 1953, the host of the popular CBS news program "See It Now," and perhaps the most respected journalist in the United States. It was his principled stand against McCarthyism that signaled the demise of the senator's demagoguery, and Clooney focuses on the long showdown between the reserved newsman and the blustery politician.
Clooney goes for a strong period feel, shooting in black-and-white, with everything shrouded in wafts of cigarette smoke. The camera-style is fly-on-the-wall, obviously influenced by the documentaries of D.F. Pennebaker, et al.; the camera tends to dart from person to person, trying to follow who's speaking -- this gives the impression of an actual event being captured, an illusion that more carefully composed shots would not convey as well.
And yet, as much as "Good Night, and Good Luck" evokes the past, it is speaking very clearly to the present. The film shows how Murrow -- played here with a quiet gravitas by David Strathairn -- first inches toward speaking out. Murrow comes across a story about a navy pilot, the son of Serbian immigrant parents, who is discharged without trial for being a "security risk," mainly, it seems, due to his ethnicity.
With a firm belief in fair play, Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), decide to run the story, despite the climate of political paranoia. Two colonels show up to warn him off the story, saying that sealed evidence incriminates the discharged airman. Murrow can only reply, "We are unable to judge the charges, because no one knows what was in that envelope." The army demands blind trust; the newsmen insist that a democracy lives on informed consent.
The story airs, and soon Sen. McCarthy is smearing the CBS staff, including Murrow himself, charging that he's on the communist payroll. CBS boss William Paley (Frank Langella) is also displeased, worrying that sponsors will flee from any hint of controversy.
The filmmakers decided to let McCarthy play himself, using actual period footage of the senator's appearances before the cameras. Clooney and screenwriter/producer Grant Heslov have said that they chose this approach because any actor playing McCarthy accurately would seem to be too over-the-top. It was a good move; it makes you wonder how such a surly bully could rise to such a peak of political power. (And then you remember Cheney and Rumsfeld, and sigh.)
While this confrontation took place some 50-odd years ago, Clooney and Heslov make the parallels to present-day America unmistakably clear. When Murrow tells his viewers, "we cannot defend freedom abroad by denying it at home," or when President Dwight Eisenhower (in a period newscast) says that in the United States, no one should have to "fear that a man in power can suddenly throw him in jail, to rot there, with no charges," it's impossible not to think of Guantanamo Bay, and the Bush administration's argument that as commander in chief, the president has the "wartime" authority to do just about anything in the name of "national security."
"Good Night, and Good Luck" is obviously a cry to arms, a call for greater media scrutiny of the government, and for the public to remember that there will always be politicians seeking to invoke invisible enemies as a pretext to take away our freedoms. Whether this film will succeed in its goal is debatable.
While finely acted, the filmmakers make little attempt to explain the context or history of the time. The viewer is dropped in medias res, and anyone not intimately familiar with the McCarthy era will have a hard time grasping the significance of the events portrayed. Another point: CBS honcho Daley chews out Murrow in the film, saying, "People want to enjoy themselves. They don't want a civics lesson." While it could be argued that it's possible to do a bit of both, "Good Night" often comes across as an earnest sermon.
For Clooney, this was as much a personal as a political project. His own father was a news anchor, and he grew up in a household idolizing Murrow. The film is as much a tribute to his father's ethics as anything else (and to the music of his aunt -- singer Rosemary Clooney -- whose band members are used for the jazz group in the film's bar scenes.)
What it could have used is some more of the personal story: What drove Murrow to take a stand, when so many others cowered? What made this man tick? A few humanizing aspects would have helped. As is, "Good Night, and Good Luck" is a nice evocation of the period, but only audiences who have done their homework will get more than that.
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