SEX (NOT REALLY), LIES (A FEW), AND VIDEOTAPE (NONE)
Let me start on a positive note. For a film made in the present climate that dramatizes the 1953-1954 clash between Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast personality who pioneered the TV news magazine, and Joseph McCarthy, the Republican senator who gave anti-communism a bad name, Good Night, and Good Luck has many fine qualities. If you like rich black-and-white cinematography; precision-tooled acting (especially David Strathairn as Murrow); artful skeins of cigarette smoke; meticulous re-creations of early-1950s offices, TV studios, and hotel bars; and jazz standards sung by the incomparable Dianne Reeves, then you will relish every minute of this film, which was co-written and directed by George Clooney (who also plays CBS news producer Fred Friendly).
Or almost every minute. Curiously, the critics have ignored this movie’s most glaring artistic flaw: a subplot about Joe and Shirley Wershba, two Murrow associates who kept their happy marriage a secret because of CBS’s anti-nepotism rule. This is possibly the dullest subplot of modern times, made even duller by the casting of Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, a couple who generate about as much spark as Kent cigarette stubbed out 50 years ago.
Why include this deadwood? My first impulse, naturally, was to blame the vast left-wing Hollywood conspiracy. By wasting valuable screen time on the Wershbas, Clooney and his boys avoided dealing with other, less boring subplots, such as the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the Maoist revolution in China, the perjury conviction of Alger Hiss, the successful testing of an atom bomb by the USSR, and the invasion of South Korea by the communist North.
But then a quick web-surf revealed that the Wershbas (now retired and living on Long Island, Joe after a 20-year career at "60 Minutes") were consultants to the film. So perhaps in exchange for sharing their valuable memories, they were granted the pleasure of seeing their youthful selves depicted onscreen. At the risk of coming off as a heartless movie critic, I must note that this pleasure is not likely to be shared by the rest of us.
But enough artistic quibbles. The reader is doubtless slavering for political red meat, especially since Clooney recently underwent the standard Midlife Mulholland Mutation from skylark star to activist asteroid. “He’s really interested in politics and social justice,” says friend and co-writer Grant Heslov. Last summer, Clooney attended the G-8 summit in Edinburgh, where he and other celebrities enlightened world leaders about poverty. To his credit, Clooney’s modest admission that the summit “taught me a lot of things” sets him apart from show-biz know-it-alls like Bono and Alec Baldwin.
But please. Of all the political districts burned over by righteous Hollywood, anti-communism is the most scorched. Again, it is to Clooney’s credit that he did not head straight for ground zero: the 1947-1948 hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that resulted in the despised blacklist and the jailing of the Hollywood Ten – also known as the Unfriendly Ten (as in “unfriendly witnesses”). I believe it was Billy Wilder who remarked about these individuals: “Two were talented, the rest were just unfriendly.”
No, Clooney went for the slightly less burned-over district of TV news in its early fluid state, before it hardened into the monstrous shape we know and love today. Not surprisingly, the red meat here is anti-anti-communism – or if you prefer, red-baiter-baiting, performed at the highest level of photogenic integrity. The film neither stresses nor denies the fact that Murrow came late to this cause. By the time his program, “See It Now,” jumped on the anti-McCarthy bandwagon, it was already loaded with radio commentators, print journalists and editorialists, congressmen and senators from both parties, military brass, and the Eisenhower White House.
But no matter. If this movie achieves anything beyond flogging the well pulped carcass of McCarthy, that achievement will be its portrayal of how unfree TV was during its so-called Golden Age. One set of pressures was technological. Back in 1954 there was no such thing as videotape, so the closest “See It Now”got to actually seeing it now was sending a film crew into the field, shooting a few thousand feet, shipping the film back to New York, and hoping it could be developed and edited in time for the live broadcast. (All TV broadcasts were live at the time.)
This is what Murrow and Friendly did for their first indirect swipe at McCarthy: send a film crew to interview Milo Radulovich, a lieutenant in the air force reserve who had been forced to resign on the grounds that his father and sister were communist sympathizers. Radulovich came off well in the interview and was soon reinstated, an outcome depicted in the movie as a clear victory – although, as Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald wrote recently, “Would we be comfortable these days with an Air Force officer with a security clearance whose father belonged to al Qaeda?”
The next attack was more direct, and less costly. Just as Frank Capra had made brilliant anti-Nazi propaganda by recycling clips from Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, so did Murrow and Friendly make brilliant anti-McCarthy propaganda by recycling clips of McCarthy’s TV appearances dating back to 1950. As Andrew Ferguson has pointed out, the result was “a compendium of every burp, grunt, stutter, nose probe, brutish aside, and maniacal giggle the senator had ever allowed to be captured on film.” These same clips are blended into the movie so seamlessly, test audiences asked who was the actor playing McCarthy. (That’s easy: James Gandolfini wearing extra eyebrow pencil.)
The second set of pressures on TV news was commercial. Next to Strathairn’s, the film’s finest performance is Frank Langella’s as CBS president and chairman William S. Paley, a man who admired Murrow but also had to reckon with such harsh realities as the priorities of advertisers and the preferences of the viewing public. The scenes between the narrowly focused Murrow and the wider-ranging Paley are beautifully done, and convey a real lesson: to speak truth to power, you must have power yourself. And it doesn’t hurt if your suit is also bespoke.
The third pressures were, for lack of a better word, professional. After the burp-and-grunt portrait of McCarthy aired, the critic Gilbert Seldes, who was a friend of Murrow’s and no friend of McCarthy’s, wrote a scathing piece in which he raised important questions about the character-assassinating powers of TV and the limitations of the “equal time” principle. According to historian Michael Kammen, “Liberals were generally puzzled by Seldes’ concerns about precedent and high principles. The damaging substance of Murrow’s achievement seemed easily to outweigh what might happen, if, at some future time, the white hats became black hats and the process were reversed.”
Needless to say, these questions are still with us. And so are the three troublesome tendencies identified by Murrow in a 1958 speech before the Radio-Television News Directors Association in Chicago: “Decadence, escapism, and insulation.” Since Clooney re-created this speech as bookends to Good Night, and Good Luck, it seems only appropriate to evaluate the movie in these terms.
It isn’t really decadent, unless you count the smoking. As Jack Shafer pointed out in Slate, Strathairn is the best screen smoker since ... well, I’d say since Jeanne Moreau picked the tobacco off her tongue in Jules et Jim. Nor is it escapist like Julia, Fred Zinneman’s 1977 film about two women of the left, one of whom worships the other. Since Julia was based on the memoirs of Lillian Hellman, some critics wondered why it starred two actresses, Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. The answer, of course, was that Hellman herself was two women, one of whom worshiped the other.
But Good Night, and Good Luck is insular. As mentioned, the only character whose mind ranges wider than a smoke ring is Paley, and his worries are mostly about the bottom line. And the decision not to have an actor play McCarthy – to reduce the dreaded witch hunter to a flickering shadow in a cathode ray tube – places the political reality of the time at an even greater remove than usual in such films. In the end, the movie is so swaddled in layers of artistic self-referentiality that it totally shuts out the concerns that made McCarthy’s witch hunt possible. Maybe the communists of the 1950s were not under every bed or in every State Department closet. But neither were they trick-or-treaters in black pointy hats. Some witches are real.
Originally published in the Weekly Standard, October 31, 2005