Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

What happened to TV news?

The marketing team behind Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), a biopic of Edward R. Murrow set largely amid the public duel between the broadcast pioneer and the mildly outspoken anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy, decided to go with a poignant, anachronistically sincere Murrow quotation for its movie posters: “We will not walk in fear of one another.” Not bad, but if I had written the tagline, it would have gone something like, “If you think what passes for TV news these days sucks, you’ll love this movie.”

Good Night did fine without me, earning six Oscar nominations and a healthy take at the box office. But now that Clooney’s sophomore directorial outing has aged half a decade, I’ll take a late-breaking opportunity to promote it: TV news in 2011 is largely comprised of the flash and pandering hated by one of its most revered patrons, and that’s why Good Night, and Good Luck matters. In fact, it’s obvious throughout the film that the state of modern television news was a major motivator behind telling Murrow’s story in the first place.

The film is shot in black and white amid cigarette smoke and flannel suits, but it’s a unique kind of period piece: one that eschews nostalgia for the Great Man and his bygone era. Instead, Clooney takes the more ambitious route, working on one level to celebrate Murrow’s career while working on another to evoke the threats that would eventually consume the then-nascent medium of TV journalism, leaving us with the infotainment morass we’re stuck in today.

The film begins with Murrow, played with quiet gravitas by David Strathairn, warning colleagues at an industry convention that they were well on the path to irrelevance. The scene is in fact a reenactment of a famous speech that Murrow gave at the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention in 1958, and the book that was put out as a companion to “Good Night” summarized the speech well, calling it Murrow’s description of “the untenable position of the journalist broadcasting on instruments whose development had been shaped by—and would continue to grow as—an impossible combination of news, show business, and advertising.”

The convention hall is packed with colleagues and industry executives, but Murrow doesn’t censor his views.

“Our history will be what we make of it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the Kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent…television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us…”

From Murrow’s speech we jump back to the CBS newsroom in 1953, and the film’s main storyline begins. But it’s impossible to understand the full import of Murrow’s fight against McCarthy—not to mention the earnestness of his plea to his colleagues—without some knowledge of where television was as a medium in the 1950s.

As Murrow notes in his speech, there were only three television networks in 1958. His words predicted the fleshpots of cable news, but that era was still a long way off. According to research cited by media scholar Thomas Doherty, between 1949 and 1959, the number of American households that owned a television increased from one in every ten to nine in every ten. In other words, TV was a brand new genre, but one that became rapidly dominant.

More crucially, it was a genre that came of age during (and in many ways enabled) McCarthyism. Before television, a senator could not make direct pleas to the entire nation without being filtered through some newspaper’s prose. McCarthy was the first master practitioner of that Machiavellian science: gaming the broadcast cameras. Murrow had to have understood that it was the medium he himself was trying to foster that enabled a Joe McCarthy. In this sense, he carried the already large burden of taking on a powerful public figure, but added to that was the pressure he felt to get a medium that had huge potential for public influence heading in a less sinister direction.

One of the most impressive aspects of “Good Night” is the film’s ability to convey the culture of fear engendered by McCarthyism—a fear that was felt at least as acutely by members of the press as it was by members of the State Department and other McCarthy whipping boys. The CBS newsroom where Murrow works is no exception, and every reporter at the station seems to be rooting for Murrow to make his first move against McCarthy while simultaneously fearing the inevitable blowback. As strong as the pall of McCarthyism is, however, it’s important to understand that the junior senator from Wisconsin, as Murrow perpetually refers to him, is far from the only antagonist in the film.

CBS chairman Bill Paley, played by Frank Langella, is the most prominent antagonist other than McCarthy given a face in the film—and antagonist is probably a bit too strong. He allows Murrow’s broadcasts to occur but not before trying his best to water them down or stop them, and is complexly portrayed throughout as either a reluctant hero or a reluctant villain, we’re never sure quite which. Jack O’Brien, a pro-McCarthy attack dog employed by the Hearst newspaper chain, is another of the villains, existing throughout in the form of his vitriolic columns.

The advertisers are another dark force, and exist either through their ads, some of which, including one for Kent cigarettes, are shown in full, or as fickle masters constantly on the minds of network executives. Even Murrow himself gets dragged into the muck, as evidenced by a puff interview he conducts with Liberace, during which he asks the closeted singer whether he plans to marry. The pressures exerted by the need the entertain, the need to appease advertisers, the need to please other colleagues in the press—all of these are the elements which argue for the true heroism of Murrow’s battle against McCarthy.

It’s also this multitude of villains that allows Good Night to exist as a character-driven story rather than a morality play. It’s terrifying to imagine what the movie might have looked like in the hands of, say, Oliver Stone. And yet somehow it’s all executed gracefully; it manages to exist on the human level.

The film nears its end with a wonderful dry line from Murrow. Paley, citing costs and lack of advertiser interest, has just canceled Murrow’s weekly program, offering as a condolence five episodes a year, on Sunday afternoons. After the meeting, Murrow turns to his producer Fred Friendly, played by George Clooney, and says, “Did you know Milton Berle is the most trusted man in America?”

After watching all that Murrow has accomplished, we’re meant to believe that there’s some grave injustice represented by that statistic, but I’d argue that it’s desirable that comedians retain a better public image than journalists. Murrow’s lesson is that public trust has to be spent, even endangered, in order to be built up. And if the job is done well, it does build up, and is spent again. Milton Berle never had to play by those rules; Murrow was the unfortunate, now dearly missed newsman who discovered them. The film is a celebration of his work, but it’s a celebration set amid a eulogy. Murrow is gone. We’ll need all the luck we can get.

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm. Tags: , , , ,