George Clooney's Timely Good Night, and
Revolution #023, November 20, 2005
Edward R. Murrow is sitting at his desk pounding
away with driven determination on an old typewriter. The camera
pans back on a darkened room--it is really late into the night,
or perhaps the wee hours of the morning. As the desk-filled
newsroom comes into full view we see Fred Friendly slumped
down in a chair, asleep.
This scene from the movie, Good Night,
and Good Luck, is the night before Murrow (played by
David Strathairn) and Friendly (played by George Clooney)
broadcast the famous 1954 See It Now show on Senator
Joe McCarthy. McCarthy was conducting congressional witch
hunts--where communists and others had their careers ended
and their lives ruined. McCarthy targeted a broad spectrum
of people, including government employees, professors, authors,
and Hollywood figures, and many people were hauled before
senators who demanded they profess their loyalty to America
and "name names."
Good Night captures the
atmosphere of suspicion and hysterical repression in an opening
scene at the CBS News studio when we are introduced to Joe
and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson),
who keep their marriage secret because company policy forbids
hiring married couples. Whispering, they discuss the "loyalty
oath" they must sign… "are you or have you ever
been a member of the communist party?" Joe says,
"If I don’t sign it, they’ll fire me."
Cut to the morning’s news meeting where
one reporter brings up a case before the Supreme Court involving
a section of the Internal Security Act that provides for the
deportation of any alien that becomes a communist after entering
A CBS executive criticizes Murrow for not
being "neutral" in the case of Milo Radulovich--who
was kicked out of the Air Force because his father and sister
were suspected of being communist sympathizers. Murrow answers:
"I simply cannot accept that there are on every story
two equal and logical sides to an argument, call it editorializing
if you like."
Great camera shots fill the screen with
black and white images that fool you into thinking you're
seeing grainy footage from the 1950s. But the questions that
begin to emerge through non-stop cigarette smoke, sound and
feel all too current and uncomfortably relevant and the movie
begins to subtly ask… what would you do?
George Clooney, who co-wrote (with Grant
Heslov), produced, directed and acted in Good Night, and
Good Luck, talks about a theme in the movie, how fear
is used to erode civil liberties. In an NPR interview with
Terry Gross (Fresh Air, October 18, 2005), he says that when
they started making the movie, "Padilla was the case
that sort of threw it in, along with the Patriot Act and Guantánamo
Bay." (Padilla is a U.S. citizen accused of being
a "terrorist" who has been in prison for 3˝ years,
stripped of the most basic legal rights.) David Strathairn
pointed out, "Maybe it’s no coincidence that the film
is being released the same week [the Patriot Act] is being
I did hear a loud echo in the present when
Murrow, describing the Milo Radulovich case, says, "The
charges were in a sealed envelope, nobody saw them. He was
guilty without a trial and told that if he wanted to keep
his job he would have to denounce his father…"
And it seems like Clooney has taken to heart
what seems to be a large message of Good Night --that
people have to stand up and fight back with determination,
against all odds, when they see injustice. Clooney told NPR,
"If you’re going to stick
your neck out you're going to have to take some hits. I
don't think anybody in their life has ever accomplished
anything that they would be proud of later if they didn’t
take some criticisms for it… I would be disturbed if I wasn't
able 20 years from now able to point back to a point in
time and say this is where I stood and this is what I believe
Clooney then goes on to describe the McCarthy-type
"There was a period of
time right after 9/11 and the lead-up to the war where it
was a very difficult time, there were only a few of us and
if you look at it, there wasn't a senator out there who
was saying hold on, let's ask some questions. There was
a period of time that was tricky, but it was important to
be talking about it. I don't think there is ever a bad time
to ask constitutional questions."
In another interview, Clooney asks,
"Why aren't people asking
who forged the papers that said Saddam Hussein was buying
yellowcake uranium? We know it's forged. It sent us to war.
Why isn't that a daily question?"
(J. Hoberman, Celebrity
The stakes were high in the fight against
McCarthy. Good Night gives a hint at the casualties--of
which there were many--when Don Hollenbeck (played by Ray
Wise) commits suicide after being targeted as a "pinko."
The McCarthy witch hunts cast a heavy pall of oppression over
society and the parallels to today are stark.
This struck me in reading attacks on Clooney
and Good Night, and Good Luck. Jack Shafer,
Slate's editor at large, slams the movie and cites
Miami Herald TV critic Glenn Garvin who asks, "Would
we be comfortable these days with an Air Force officer with
a security clearance whose father belonged to al Qaeda?"
And then there are the Christian fascist
views of McCarthy. Extreme right-wing commentator Ann Coulter,
whose book Treason upholds McCarthy and calls anti-Bush
liberals “traitors,” has attacked Clooney and Good
Night (“Danny Ocean Defends the Rather Network,” 11-9-05).
She says, “I don't intend to see his movie because—except
for the McCarthy parts—it sounds like a snoozefest.” Good
Night includes footage of Annie Lee Moss, who worked
in the Pentagon, being grilled by McCarthy and accused of
being a communist. To this, Coulter says, putting Moss in
the Code Room of the Pentagon “was an act of sheer madness,
like, say, putting a member of al-Qaida at the Pentagon today
or putting Pat Leahy on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Oh
When one interviewer asked Clooney, “What
do you say to people claiming McCarthy was right?” he
said, “They're inspiration for making the film. Ann Coulter,
David Strathairn, who plays Edward R. Murrow
brilliantly, found motivation in his research for the role.
"Doing a report on Birkenau
[a Nazi concentration camp], after he [Murrow] had gone
and seen the concentration camps, I think something cracked
inside him. I think he realized the depth that man will
go to be inhumane to himself and he came back to the United
States carrying something inside that ultimately gave him
the confidence, or the energy or the will to go after Joseph
R. McCarthy because he wasn't going to let something like
that happen again."
(Alex Chadwick, NPR interview
with David Strathairn, 10-7-05)
And Strathairn brings this question to the
present when he asks,
"How many journalists are
there now, who want to say something? I mean, how many journalists
are between a rock and a hard place now? Those people who
are embedded somewhere and can't get their stuff out...
The fear that is in the room today is not as specific as
it was then. You could be compromised in so many other ways
than losing your job or going to jail. You may not even
know you're being compromised. Maybe this film can encourage
and give hopes to those people."
(Julian Roman interview
with David Strathairn, 10-6-05)
Good Night, and Good Luck accurately
portrays how Murrow denied being a communist and how a big
part of what drove Murrow was his belief (and illusions about)
American ideals and bourgeois democracy. When McCarthy uses
his rebuttal time to accuse Murrow of being a communist, offering
as one piece of evidence that a British socialist scholar
dedicated a book to Murrow, Murrow answers:
"He was a socialist, I
am not. He was one of those civilized individuals who did
not insist upon agreement with his political principles
as a pre-condition for conversation or friendship. I do
not agree with his political ideas…"
But this did not deter Murrow from taking
a stand and leading others to "do the right thing"
even in the face of threats and controversy.
At the end of the movie, Murrow and Friendly
have just heard from their boss William Paley (played by Frank
Langella) that their program is being downgraded from a weekly
program to only five episodes. As they walk out of the CBS
lobby, we see then president Ike Eisenhower delivering the
ironic message that no American need fear "that he
can be suddenly thrown in jail to rot there without charges
and with no recourse to justice, we have the habeas corpus
act and we respect it."
Then we see Murrow delivering a 1958 speech
where he says,
"I began by saying that
our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are
then history will take its revenge and retribution will
not limp in catching up. Just once in a while let us exalt
the importance of ideas and information...To those who say
people wouldn’t look, they wouldn’t be interested, they’re
too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply
there is in one reporter’s opinion considerable evidence
against that contention... This instrument [television]
can teach, it can illuminate and yes, it can even inspire
but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined
to use it towards those ends, otherwise it is merely wires
and lights in a box. Good night, and good luck."
Clooney says that when he was a kid, his
family would be at a restaurant having dinner and his father
would always make a big scene when he overheard people talking
about "those people"--referring in a derogative
way to Black people (NPR interview). Clooney says at times
he and his sister wished their father hadn't made a scene
but now, as he thinks back, he can't be more proud. Clooney
says his father taught him the lesson that
"Every time you let that go, every
time you don't hear that or you purposefully ignore it just
to make things easier for yourself, you are doing a disservice
and so that's why you have to fight those fights."
Go see Good Night, and Good Luck.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolution
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497