(PG) David Stratharin (Edward R. Murrow), Patricia Clarkson (Shirley Wershba), George Clooney (Fred Friendly), Jeff Daniels (Sig Mickelson), Robert Downey Jr. (Joe Wershba), Frank Langella (William Paley), Ray Wise (Don Hollenbeck). Music: No general soundtrack (songs performed by Dianne Reeves). Screenplay: George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Director: George Clooney. 93 minutes (black and white).
Tags: Docu-Drama, Government Terrorism, Censorship, History, News
Notable: Shirley and Joe Wershba, who were actually part of Morrow’s news team, were directly consulted at every stage of production, making the story as historically accurate as possible.
The year is 1953. Television is brand new, the world is rebuilding from World War II, and the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy (a.k.a. “Tailgunner Joe”) was convinced that America had been infiltrated by “card-carrying communists” whose mere existence would destroy the country. CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow began his reporting of McCarthy by finding one incident – a young man thrown out of the Air Force because his father may have had some sort of contact with “communists” – and exposing McCarthy’s extremism, building the story piece by piece until McCarthy himself became the subject of a Senate investigation.
No one born after about 1945 (including myself) can truly understand what the “Red Scare” of the 1950s was really like. “Freedom of speech” was almost unknown, even among friends and neighbors, for fear that merely questioning anything about the government could be seen as reason for being subjected to inquisition from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The “commies” could destroy the whole country just by contaminating our thoughts with their opinions. Fear of nuclear bombs being unleashed suddenly and without warning caused children in New York City – a prime target for terrorism even back then – to go to school wearing identification “dog tags,” like soldiers, in case they were killed in an atomic attack. In fact, it was this paranoia over “the commies” that led to the inclusion of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance (which happened in 1954, and which has grown into the ridiculous furor that the United States is a “Christian nation,” which has never been true).
Only Murrow and his staff had the courage to point clearly at the true source of fear: Joe McCarthy, whose interrogations have become part of the horror story that is the American system of government. People were imprisoned on hearsay, rumor, and innuendo, without benefit of trial or defense, and locked away indefinitely as “threats to the security of the country.” Does this sound at all familiar to anyone? (Hint: Does the name “Guantanamo” ring any bells?)
This film is as gripping a drama as such works as The Missiles of October, which concerns the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was, in its way, a similar pitting of superpowers against one another – in this case, the passively corrupted government of the 1950s against the new and actively engaging medium of television reporting. Morrow was part of an era when journalism was still about working actively to view directly, report accurately, and honestly editorialize (when needed) regarding the possible consequences to individuals, to patriots, to constitutional ideals. Over the years, as we began to lose the truly responsible television journalists – Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil, Tom Brokaw – television news began to deteriorate into simply one more form of entertainment. All that is reported is the most grisly news, the most grotesque deaths, the most recent “hot topic,” or the most scandalous gossip, all without regard to facts, confirmation, or bias. This method was not created by but has been obsessively cultivated by Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born creator of the Fox Network; he has been quoted as saying that, since he cannot become President (not being born in the U.S.), he would instead “settle for securing elections” for politicians who suit his interests. In order to compete in the new world of commercial-based “news” channels, where the primary goal is revenue rather than reportage, more and more media outlets have succumbed to this disgraceful, and devastating technique.
Morrow himself, over 50 years ago, predicted that the demise of responsible journalism would “distract, delude, entertain, and insulate” the public from the realities of the world we live in. This powerful, fact-filled docu-drama should be shown in schools, made part of everyone’s awareness, given the priority usually reserved for religious doctrine. Instead, we have the aforementioned Fox network and constant updates on the state of Kim Kardashian’s hangnail or bias-filled neo-conservative propaganda pretending to be “the news.” Morrow himself once said, “We’re in the same tent as the clowns and the freaks – that’s show business.”
This film may not be as slick, clever, and sexy as modern-day’s Aaron Sorkin masterwork, The Newsroom, but the message of Good Night, and Good Luck is no less powerful and, perhaps, even more important. The 15-minute “companion piece,” available on the DVD, is no less worth viewing; it reinforces the idea perfectly, with opinions from people who were there. We may yet be able to salvage journalism… but first, we have to know what it looks like. This is it.