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.
Last week: Newsies
Next up: The Parallax View