George Clooney's Timely Good Night, and Good Luck:
Revolution #023, November 20, 2005, posted at revcom.us
Edward R. Murrow is sitting at his desk pounding away with driven determination on an old typewriter. The camera pans back on a darkened room--it is really late into the night, or perhaps the wee hours of the morning. As the desk-filled newsroom comes into full view we see Fred Friendly slumped down in a chair, asleep.
This scene from the movie, Good Night, and Good Luck, is the night before Murrow (played by David Strathairn) and Friendly (played by George Clooney) broadcast the famous 1954 See It Now show on Senator Joe McCarthy. McCarthy was conducting congressional witch hunts--where communists and others had their careers ended and their lives ruined. McCarthy targeted a broad spectrum of people, including government employees, professors, authors, and Hollywood figures, and many people were hauled before senators who demanded they profess their loyalty to America and "name names."
Good Night captures the atmosphere of suspicion and hysterical repression in an opening scene at the CBS News studio when we are introduced to Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), who keep their marriage secret because company policy forbids hiring married couples. Whispering, they discuss the "loyalty oath" they must sign… "are you or have you ever been a member of the communist party?" Joe says, "If I don’t sign it, they’ll fire me."
Cut to the morning’s news meeting where one reporter brings up a case before the Supreme Court involving a section of the Internal Security Act that provides for the deportation of any alien that becomes a communist after entering this country.
A CBS executive criticizes Murrow for not being "neutral" in the case of Milo Radulovich--who was kicked out of the Air Force because his father and sister were suspected of being communist sympathizers. Murrow answers: "I simply cannot accept that there are on every story two equal and logical sides to an argument, call it editorializing if you like."
Great camera shots fill the screen with black and white images that fool you into thinking you're seeing grainy footage from the 1950s. But the questions that begin to emerge through non-stop cigarette smoke, sound and feel all too current and uncomfortably relevant and the movie begins to subtly ask… what would you do?
George Clooney, who co-wrote (with Grant Heslov), produced, directed and acted in Good Night, and Good Luck, talks about a theme in the movie, how fear is used to erode civil liberties. In an NPR interview with Terry Gross (Fresh Air, October 18, 2005), he says that when they started making the movie, "Padilla was the case that sort of threw it in, along with the Patriot Act and Guantánamo Bay." (Padilla is a U.S. citizen accused of being a "terrorist" who has been in prison for 3½ years, stripped of the most basic legal rights.) David Strathairn pointed out, "Maybe it’s no coincidence that the film is being released the same week [the Patriot Act] is being voted on."
I did hear a loud echo in the present when Murrow, describing the Milo Radulovich case, says, "The charges were in a sealed envelope, nobody saw them. He was guilty without a trial and told that if he wanted to keep his job he would have to denounce his father…"
And it seems like Clooney has taken to heart what seems to be a large message of Good Night --that people have to stand up and fight back with determination, against all odds, when they see injustice. Clooney told NPR,
"If you’re going to stick your neck out you're going to have to take some hits. I don't think anybody in their life has ever accomplished anything that they would be proud of later if they didn’t take some criticisms for it… I would be disturbed if I wasn't able 20 years from now able to point back to a point in time and say this is where I stood and this is what I believe in."
Clooney then goes on to describe the McCarthy-type atmosphere today:
"There was a period of time right after 9/11 and the lead-up to the war where it was a very difficult time, there were only a few of us and if you look at it, there wasn't a senator out there who was saying hold on, let's ask some questions. There was a period of time that was tricky, but it was important to be talking about it. I don't think there is ever a bad time to ask constitutional questions."
In another interview, Clooney asks,
"Why aren't people asking who forged the papers that said Saddam Hussein was buying yellowcake uranium? We know it's forged. It sent us to war. Why isn't that a daily question?"
(J. Hoberman, Celebrity Journalist, 11-4-05)
The stakes were high in the fight against McCarthy. Good Night gives a hint at the casualties--of which there were many--when Don Hollenbeck (played by Ray Wise) commits suicide after being targeted as a "pinko." The McCarthy witch hunts cast a heavy pall of oppression over society and the parallels to today are stark.
This struck me in reading attacks on Clooney and Good Night, and Good Luck. Jack Shafer, Slate's editor at large, slams the movie and cites Miami Herald TV critic Glenn Garvin who asks, "Would we be comfortable these days with an Air Force officer with a security clearance whose father belonged to al Qaeda?"
And then there are the Christian fascist views of McCarthy. Extreme right-wing commentator Ann Coulter, whose book Treason upholds McCarthy and calls anti-Bush liberals “traitors,” has attacked Clooney and Good Night (“Danny Ocean Defends the Rather Network,” 11-9-05). She says, “I don't intend to see his movie because—except for the McCarthy parts—it sounds like a snoozefest.” Good Night includes footage of Annie Lee Moss, who worked in the Pentagon, being grilled by McCarthy and accused of being a communist. To this, Coulter says, putting Moss in the Code Room of the Pentagon “was an act of sheer madness, like, say, putting a member of al-Qaida at the Pentagon today or putting Pat Leahy on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Oh wait...”
When one interviewer asked Clooney, “What do you say to people claiming McCarthy was right?” he said, “They're inspiration for making the film. Ann Coulter, for example.”
David Strathairn, who plays Edward R. Murrow brilliantly, found motivation in his research for the role. He says,
"Doing a report on Birkenau [a Nazi concentration camp], after he [Murrow] had gone and seen the concentration camps, I think something cracked inside him. I think he realized the depth that man will go to be inhumane to himself and he came back to the United States carrying something inside that ultimately gave him the confidence, or the energy or the will to go after Joseph R. McCarthy because he wasn't going to let something like that happen again."
(Alex Chadwick, NPR interview with David Strathairn, 10-7-05)
And Strathairn brings this question to the present when he asks,
"How many journalists are there now, who want to say something? I mean, how many journalists are between a rock and a hard place now? Those people who are embedded somewhere and can't get their stuff out... The fear that is in the room today is not as specific as it was then. You could be compromised in so many other ways than losing your job or going to jail. You may not even know you're being compromised. Maybe this film can encourage and give hopes to those people."
(Julian Roman interview with David Strathairn, 10-6-05)
Good Night, and Good Luck accurately portrays how Murrow denied being a communist and how a big part of what drove Murrow was his belief (and illusions about) American ideals and bourgeois democracy. When McCarthy uses his rebuttal time to accuse Murrow of being a communist, offering as one piece of evidence that a British socialist scholar dedicated a book to Murrow, Murrow answers:
"He was a socialist, I am not. He was one of those civilized individuals who did not insist upon agreement with his political principles as a pre-condition for conversation or friendship. I do not agree with his political ideas…"
But this did not deter Murrow from taking a stand and leading others to "do the right thing" even in the face of threats and controversy.
At the end of the movie, Murrow and Friendly have just heard from their boss William Paley (played by Frank Langella) that their program is being downgraded from a weekly program to only five episodes. As they walk out of the CBS lobby, we see then president Ike Eisenhower delivering the ironic message that no American need fear "that he can be suddenly thrown in jail to rot there without charges and with no recourse to justice, we have the habeas corpus act and we respect it."
Then we see Murrow delivering a 1958 speech where he says,
"I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are then history will take its revenge and retribution will not limp in catching up. Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information...To those who say people wouldn’t look, 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 [television] can teach, it can illuminate and yes, it can even inspire but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it towards those ends, otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. Good night, and good luck."
Clooney says that when he was a kid, his family would be at a restaurant having dinner and his father would always make a big scene when he overheard people talking about "those people"--referring in a derogative way to Black people (NPR interview). Clooney says at times he and his sister wished their father hadn't made a scene but now, as he thinks back, he can't be more proud. Clooney says his father taught him the lesson that
"Every time you let that go, every time you don't hear that or you purposefully ignore it just to make things easier for yourself, you are doing a disservice and so that's why you have to fight those fights."
Go see Good Night, and Good Luck.