Review: Good Night, and Good Luck

I was alive in the 1950s, but just barely. I was born in 1957, but by that time, the wreckage done to our civil liberties by the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and the first half of the 1950s had been mostly cleared away. America was still a pretty up tight and paranoid place, but the era of blacklisting was at least over. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the famous junior senator from Wisconsin who saw communists everywhere pervading our government, was the key figure of his age whipping up anti-communist hysteria. He died at age 48 in the same year I was born. Few mourned his passing.

As is well known, the CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow was instrumental in Senator McCarthy’s fall from power. The 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck chronicles the intersection of these two powerful men in the 1950s. Senator McCarthy is played by himself; he appears only in historical footage. Rather than try to recreate the already well-documented hearings of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, the film tightly focuses on CBS News, Edward R. Murrow and the staff of his influential TV show See It Now.

The film was written and directed by the actor George Clooney. Clooney also played the part of Fred Fielding, the CBS producer of See It Now. Its release in 2005 struck me as hardly coincidental. Indeed, near the end of the film, we see archival footage of President Eisenhower eloquently speaking about how American is differentiated by our respect for the inalienable right to Habeas Corpus. This just so happens to be a right that was recently denied to many so called enemy combatants from our War on Terrorism not to mention a handful of American citizens. Nor is Edward R. Murrow portrayed as an evenhanded journalist. He recognized McCarthy for what he was: a power monger and a threat to our constitutional government and civil liberties. In the movie Murrow, with the sometimes with the halfhearted support of CBS News management, makes no secret of his desire to bring down the imperial Senator McCarthy.

Shot (or at least rendered) in black and white this film is really a short (93 minute) behind the scenes look at Murrow, CBS and the See It Now staff during these decisive times. The film feels quite authentic. The 1950s were a much different place than our current decade. The film shows it as a time when the cigarette was king. It seemed like everyone smoked, and almost everyone in this movie is smoking all the time. Murrow himself was a chain smoker. His addiction killed him in 1965. The film often seems shot behind a gauzy curtain of tobacco smoke.

Actor David Strathairn, who won a nomination for best actor for this movie, powerfully renders Murrow. There is no doubt that Murrow was courageous journalist. Although his reputation was impeccable, taking on Senator McCarthy was still a nervy and very dangerous thing for him to do. We are also given some insight into CBS senior management, including Chairman William Paley (Frank Langella) as well as others on the See it Now staff. This includes two on the staff who were married, but had to hide their relationship in order to keep their jobs. It also portrays others on the staff who were worried they would be blacklisted for activities years ago that were now considered un-American.

The movie is so tightly focused that it lacks the broader context. If you know anything about those times, you know what eventually transpired. Consequently, there is little in the way of suspense. Indeed, hardly halfway through the movie Murrow is successfully delivering his first body blows against Senator McCarthy. The movie adds little illumination to the events of the 1950s. Instead, it serves primarily to illuminate modern audiences into the journalist Edward R. Murrow. It also portrays something we do not see much of these days from our media: genuine journalistic courage and a willingness of senior news management to risk reputation and profits in pursuit of the public’s agenda. Of course, it was easier to do it in those days, when the networks ruled the airwaves.

While I enjoyed the film, I felt that it won so many plaudits largely because of the times that we live in. Would this movie made in 2000 have garnered as many award nominations or as much interest by the media? I think not. Arguably, we needed a courageous media in 2005 more than in 2000. Perhaps one point of the movie was to encourage our modern media to develop some spine.

Overall Good Night, and Good Luck feels more like a political statement than anything else. It feels like an attempt by George Clooney to establish his liberal credentials and to win kudos from the Hollywood elite. I can think of much better political movies that were far better than Good Night, and Good Luck. (All the President’s Men comes to mind.)

Good Night, and Good Luck is neither a bad movie nor a mediocre movie. It is just a pretty good movie. It is worthy of a rental for the fine but focused rendering of CBS News in the 1950s, as well as Strathairn’s faithful portray of Edward R. Murrow. It is a succinct history lesson for those less than age fifty, as well as a convincing portrayal of the broadcast world of that era. While an important work, it is not a seminal work. Children of Men, which I recently reviewed, is a seminal work of art.

Good Night, and Good Luck gets 3.2 on my 4.0 scale.

The Return of McCarthyism

Those of us of a certain age remember the Red Menace: communism. We were told endlessly that communism was bad. It was evil. It was definitely un-American. The Red Menace was everywhere. The Soviet Union was the primary menace but China, though smaller, was even scarier. Back then being a red state was not a good thing. It meant it was a communist country. A global map showed most of Asia swallowed up in red, along with Eastern Europe, Cuba and swatches of Africa. Only a fool would admit to being a communist. But during the 1950s even the whisper that you might have communist sympathies was enough to cost you any chance of employment in this country. Communists were scary, mysterious and (we believed) evil to the core. They had not a dash of humanity in them. They must have eaten little babies for breakfast and raped their own mothers. They were our boogeymen.

And there certainly were good reasons to be scared of communism. Russia had, after all, taken over Eastern Europe after World War Two simply because it could. Like America it had massive missiles with nuclear warheads. Their missiles were pointed right at us and could annihilate large parts of our country within an hour. Cuba was communist and it was just across the Florida Straits. Communists were trying to win control of places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. It clearly was an important national security problem. But communism was also perceived to be a direct assault on our way of living. The truth is in our country capitalism is as important as democracy. Communism was about ending capitalism. It was the threat to capitalism that truly freaked us out.

But for some whipping up our concern about communism was a means to a different end. Fear of communism became a means to push other goals that had nothing to do with communism but had a lot to do with controlling us. The symbol of those paranoid times was Senator Joseph McCarthy who professed to believe that our government was full of communist agents. McCarthy cast innocent people right and left as communists. McCarthy became one of the most powerful people in the United States. Even legendary FBI Directory J. Edgar Hoover feared the man.

Fortunately on June 9th, 1954 McCarthy was exposed for the fraud that he was by Joseph Welch, the chief attorney for the U.S. Army. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Welch asked him. McCarthy finally became the investigated, was censured by the Senate and died in 1957 of hepatitis, likely caused from alcoholism.

I’m sad to say that McCarthyism is back. It is not in quite as virulent a stage today as it was in the 1950s. But here it is fifty years later and its presence is now unmistakable. Communism is no longer the boogeyman. Terrorism has become the new boogeyman.

Just as it was with communism, terrorism is a serious threat to our national security. But even while it remains a serious threat it is not the overwhelming threat that the Bush Administration paints it out to be. In fact compared to the Cold War, the War on Terrorism may well be but a fairly minor skirmish. The Soviet Union had the capability of completely destroying our country. Al Qaeda does not. And like the Cold War there are limits to the amount of paranoia and associated power grabbing a reputedly free country should tolerate.

It was George W. Bush who unapologetically set the tone to the War on Terrorism: you are either with us or against us. As simple minded as this policy is at least in the beginning it was applied only to other countries. Now it is being applied to Americans. If we make the wrong choice on November 2nd we are apparently giving aid and comfort to the terrorists. It seems Osama bin Laden is secretly rooting for Kerry-Edwards. No less than our Vice President suggested exactly this. On September 7th, 2004 Dick Cheney told us:

“It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.”

The implication is clear. If you don’t vote for Bush-Cheney you are aiding and abetting terrorists. If you love your country and want to see your kids alive you must vote Bush-Cheney.

But it’s more than this. Bush-Cheney has become the “All Fear, All The Time” administration. Terrorism is its one trick pony. Keeping us scared is about the only leverage it has left over us. By keeping us scared it appeals to the worst in us, instead of the best in us. By keeping us scared it is harder to notice the 800,000 or so jobs lost during this administration, or the net loss in income due to inflation this year, or the outsourcing, or the vanishing middle class, or our increasingly polluted skies and water, or our crumbling infrastructure. By keeping us scared and by asking Americans to put their trust in this administration they are asking us to turn a blind eye on just how poor a job they are actually doing protecting our country.

The fire and brimstone coming from this administration reminds me of the endless fires and ash belching from Tolkien’s mythical Mount Doom. It is covering the land and turning us into nastier people. Instead of being free spirited Elves we are behaving a lot more like Orcs. It is making us suspicious of our neighbors and paranoid about anyone claiming to be Muslim or in my case, a Democrat. It is saying that dissent is un-American. I got a whiff of it a couple months ago when I was asked to either support my president or leave the country.

Fortunately every four years we Americans have a chance to put in new leaders in the White House. John Kerry and John Edwards have become the new Joseph Welch and Edward R. Murrows. (They weren’t the first. Howard Dean beat them to it.) Thankfully through the presidential and vice presidential debates they are allowing Americans to understand how the fear mongering and hubris from this administration have been substituted for reasoned judgment.

It’s one thing to be scared, it’s another thing to be controlled because we are scared. We should be scared about aspects of our War on Terrorism. We should definitely be scared that due to this adminstration’s incompetence so many nuclear stockpiles across the former Soviet Union remain so poorly secured three years after 9/11.

But we should not be scared of boogeymen. Saddam Hussein was a boogeyman. He certainly was a threat to his own people. But since the Gulf War he was no threat to his neighbors. He was contained correctly and competently for about a billion dollars a year by presidents Bush Sr. and Clinton through sanctions and no fly zones. We will not be safer because the FBI has the power to check our library records. We will not be safer because the president claims the power to put even our own citizens away without a trial indefinitely in the name of national security.

Kerry and Edwards say that if elected they will never lie to us. Arguably on some level all politicians are liars. But clearly they could not come close to lying to us the way this administration has repeatedly lied to us about Iraq. Joseph McCarthy would approve of the Bush team’s tactics. To respond, on November 2nd we must become Howard Beale. We must say unmistakably that we’ve had it up to here with reckless fear mongering and we’re not going to live in fear anymore. We will insist on leaders that can tell us the truth because we are grown up enough and can handle the truth, mistakes and all. And perhaps although the world will remain a dangerous place we will refuse to spend our lives needlessly traumatized. Bush and Cheney have become like abusive, power controlling husbands. And we have allowed ourselves to be the traumatized wife. Instead of paralyzed by our fears we must move forward toward the future sanguine of the risks of our age but not overcome by them. Perhaps we will find the simple determination to live our lives wide eyed, fully, yet unafraid.

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