Good Night, and Good Luck (IMDB), George Clooney’s film about the conflict between CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joeseph McCarthy opens with Murrow accepting an award from the Radio Television News Directors Association on October 25, 1958, just a few short years after the McCarthy’s HUAC hearings. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white, with Murrow’s figure set starkly against a black background, Murrow (David Strathairn) warns against the dangers of television becoming a tool for entertainment at the expense of its potential use for disseminating news and contributing to a vibrant public sphere (the actual text of Murrow’s speech is available here. Murrow warns,
Our history will be what we make 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.
It’s hardly necessary to point out that Murrow’s comments are meant to resonate with the current moment, but Murrow’s warning is a powerful one. As Alex notes, at the very least, the film is an excellent piece of “propaganda.” It’s gorgeously shot and powerfully acted as well. In fact the use of stark, sometimes expressionistic black-and-white cinematography reminded me of another film about a newsman. The use of black-and-white is motivated in part by the decision to use actual footage of McCarthy rather than casting an actor to play him. We see McCarthy in his own words, his own gestures, and because he is always isolated on the screen, McCarthy seems to be part of another world, almost an alien figure. While Clooney’s film is far more modest, both filmmakers are interested in the role of the media (TV, newsreels, newspapers) in constructing national identity.
The film has been criticized in some circles for not telling the full story. Stephen Hunter, of the Washington Post (I almost missed this film because of Hunter’s sledgehammer review), faults Good Night for failing to acknowledge that there were Commie infiltrators in our midst, but Clooney’s film never claims that there were no Communist spies in the U.S. It is, as Murrow’s introductory comments imply, a film about the “watchdog” role of TV news. Oddly, Hunter also faults the film for making Murrow seem too one-dimensional, that he takes himself too seriously, rhetorically asking, “Did the guy drink, joke, pinch bottoms, get angry, root for a ball team, love his kids, read the funnies?” Hunter must have missed the bottles of scotch readily available in the office and the ever-present cigarettes that allowed Murrow to keep his cool when he realizes that his career might be in jeopardy due to his tangles with the Wisconsin Senator. Here, Alex’s questions about the role of the history film are quite relevant, as are his critiques of “objective” reporting: “Reporting cannot be unbiased, and as Murrow argues in the film, not all stories can or should be balanced. The balance, instead, is in how much you are able to use the facts to tell your story.”
Michael Atkinson’s Village Voice review offers a much more nuanced take on the film than Hunter’s, particularly when it comes to the film’s media critique (see also J. Hoberman’s interview with Clooney). But while Atkinson finds the scenes in the newsrrom too claustrophobic, I found these scenes to be fascinating, especially in the multiplication of screens that refract and multiply Murrow’s and McCarthy’s faces, with the use of rack focus often directing our attention.
It seems clear that Good Night is a powerfully relevant film, not only because of its critique of TV news journalism in the build-up to the Iraq War but also because of the attempt to recuperate McCarthy, most visibly in Ann Coulter’s Treason.