Bright Lights Film Journal

Extra! Extra! Read All About It! Clooney Defeats McCarthy!

Rosemary’s nephew clocks dairy state demagogue in Good Night, And Good Luck

Generals and Hollywood directors have at least one thing in common: they both enjoy fighting the last war.1 It’s so much easier to win when you know what the other side is going to do!

In Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney absolutely crushes master red-baiter Joe McCarthy (right). I mean, he crushes him! Old Joe doesn’t stand a chance! Big George is all over him! I mean, all over him! Of course, it helps that old Joe has been dead for forty years, but still.

Good Night, and Good Luck begins with CBS legend Edward R. Murrow subjecting a black-tie crowd of network big shots to a withering denunciation of their own decadence. As the camera scans across their fat, graceless faces, Murrow informs them that the fall of Western civilization is certain unless they get off their fat assets2 and start putting hard-hitting journalism on America’s TV screens instead of escapist entertainment. As we listen to Ed rant, we can’t help but echo the thoughts of the crowd we’re watching: Bring on the dancing girls!

Well, sorry, folks, but there ain’t no dancing girls in Good Night, and Good Luck.3 Instead, we flash back to the early, glory days of CBS news, when Murrow and his boys did put hard-hitting journalism on America’s TV screens. The film, shot in grainy black-and-white with handheld cameras in an effective simulation of cinéma-vérité,4 gives us the CBS newsroom circa 1953, a crowd of Ivy League white boys in dark suits and white shirts, each consuming about a quart of nicotine an hour as they pound out the news for an anxious nation obsessed by communism and the Cold War. Ed Murrow (David Straithairn) and his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) are trying to set their hard-hitting weekly news program See It Now on a collision course with “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy, Republican senator from Wisconsin, who has had the nation in an uproar for three years with constant (and constantly false) charges of communism, treason, and espionage.

Good Night, and Good Luck, like recent television programs ranging from Spin City to West Wing,essentially lets media folk play themselves, or at least play themselves as they imagine themselves to be: smart, funny, ambitious, sexy, irreverent, and, sometimes, just a little bit shallow. The suits, at least the suits upstairs like CBS Chairman Bill Paley (Frank Langella5), want no part of a showdown with McCarthy. They prefer Murrow’s Person to Person show, featuring softball (so to speak) interviews with effete ephemera like Liberace.6

But Ed and Fred persevere, and the big show goes off without a hitch. The response is overwhelming! Fifteen to one in favor!7 McCarthy, invited on the show to offer a rebuttal, makes a complete ass of himself, and in the coming weeks stumbles from one disaster to another. The good guys win!

Well, not exactly, Fred and Ed won the battle, but they lost the war. Paley’s tired of confrontational television. From now on, See It Now will be big picture, soft focus, an hour long but only once a month. Timeliness is out, big thoughts are in.

Good Night, and Good Luck sells its melodrama with a soupçon of honor. In conversation, the boys acknowledge that others, including “the Alsops8 and Herblock,9” have been fighting McCarthy for a long time. When CBS reporter Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise) urges Murrow to take on the New York Daily News, Ed replies “I can’t fight Hearst and McCarthy at the same time.”10 And when Fred and Ed face off with Paley, Bill notes that Murrow didn’t have the guts to correct McCarthy when Joe said (wrongly) that Alger Hiss was convicted of treason — “You didn’t want to be seen defending Hiss.”11

Despite these touches, overall the morality of Good Night, and Good Luck is, well, black and white. At the end of the film, we go back to Ed’s farewell speech. Get up off your assets, damn you! Get off or we’re all going to hell! Yes, Clooney is fighting an old war, but he’s also trying to fight a new one. Ed’s message isn’t directed at the networks of the fifties but the networks of the oughties. CBS! NBC! ABC! Don’t just sit there! Do your duty! Get up off your asses and tell America what an asshole12 that George W. Bush is!

Clooney does get one good, though near subliminal, poke at W, a seemingly random clip of President Eisenhower praising the constitutionally guaranteed privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, which protects, as Eisenhower says, any citizen from being arrested by the state and simply “thrown in jail to rot” with no charges ever brought against him, a privilege that W would dearly like to take away from us,13 along with a privilege we scarcely knew we needed, the privilege of immunity from “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” treatment.14

It is Clooney’s solution, rather than his analysis, of the problem that bothers me. It is no longer, if it ever was, the role of Ivy League white boys to tell America what to think. In any event, there’s no real evidence that America ever listened. But the real point, of which Clooney seems entirely ignorant, is this: thanks to talk radio, cable TV, and the Internet, there is approximately 5,000 times as much hard-hitting political reporting, commentary, and analysis available to the American people than in the glory days of See It Now. Clooney may not like what he hears, but that’s not the point. The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee that you’ll like what you hear, only that you’ll hear it.

Afterwords

Slate’s Jack Shafer gives the dubious politics and moralizing of Good Night, and Good Luck a thorough drubbing here. After more than 50 years, the debate over the nature of the domestic communist threat in the thirties and forties still roils the American psyche, to no little degree. It requires some serious leg work to get your bearings, but to my mind the best guides are The Rosenberg File: The Second Edition, by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy, by Thomas Reeves, and three books revolving around Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss: Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Allen Weinstein; Witness, by Whittaker Chambers (full of lies, but also full of truths); and Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, by Sam Tannenhaus, which catches up with some, but no means all, of Whit’s stretchers, omissions, and outright falsehoods.15

  1. Both groups, I’m happy to say, have lost their taste for jodhpurs (right) — a small step for mankind, perhaps, but a very real one. []
  2. Actually, he doesn’t say “assets.” It’s “fat debentures” or “fat retirement plans” or something of that sort. I didn’t feel like sitting through the picture twice to pick up one lame fifties double entendre. []
  3. But there is some excellent jazz singing from Diana Reeves. []
  4. And what, I ask you, is more honest than fake vérité? []
  5. Langella, playing Paley as a fat, dark, oily Machiavel, makes his 1979 version of Dracula look like a beach boy. []
  6. Straithairn/Murrow, after asking Liberace about his plans for marriage, makes a face off-camera of utter disgust, as though he just kissed a turd. Helping a queer stay in the closet! The shame of it! The shame! []
  7. But what’s so brave about doing a show that over 90 percent of your audience thought was terrific? The See It Now audience, one suspects, consisted largely of educated WASPs and Jews, who had no use for McCarthy. Joe’s real base was blue-collar Catholics and Midwestern isolationists, particularly Germans, many of whom did not own a TV in 1954. []
  8. Joe and Stewart Alsop, well-born WASPs who wanted to make a difference in DC, wrote a political column together. Joe, the more driven of the two, was a highly closeted, highly fastidious homosexual. He hated communism but seemed to hate Midwesterners even more, and found all Republicans a bore. The New Left opposition to the Vietnam War drove him right, and he became one of the few Nixon Democrats with a Groton accent. []
  9. Herbert Block, famous cartoonist for the Washington Post, which was not nearly the national force in 1953 that it is today. []
  10. Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (the famous model for Charles Foster Kane) was playing the red card when McCarthy was still in diapers. The real Hollenbeck was constantly being attacked by the News’ TV critic Jack O’Brien as a “pinko” and eventually committed suicide, as described in Good Night, and Good Luck. I haven’t been able to find any background on Hollenbeck. []
  11. Hiss was convicted of perjury, for lying when questioned by a grand jury in 1948 about being a communist and engaging in espionage as a State Department official in the thirties. Evidence of Hiss’s crimes was supplied by Whittaker Chambers, who withheld it until the statute of limitations for espionage had lapsed, because he did not want to be convicted himself. Hiss could not have been convicted of “treason” — defined in the Constitution as supplying aid and comfort to the enemy — because the Soviet Union was never our “enemy.” The U.S. never declared war on the U.S.S.R. []
  12. Well, yes, W is an asshole, but is he major-league or big-time? I can never decide. []
  13. W believes that the Constitution should be interpreted strictly or ignored completely, whichever is easier. []
  14. But doesn’t the Constitution forbid “cruel and unusual punishment”? Yes, but that’s punishment. This is torture. It’s totally different, dude! Totally! []
  15. W believes that the Constitution should be interpreted strictly or ignored completely, whichever is easier. []