Originally founded by retired Mezzanine writer Andreas Stoehr, “Looking Back” is a column that allows Mezzanine staffers to reexamine and reevaluate a film of the past.
As time passes and life limps onward, many films have reevaluated the cultural damage done by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The man responsible for cutting short the careers of innovative artists perceived to have political ties to the Communist party has left an indelible mark on the movie industry. From Charlie Chaplin to Orson Welles to Luis Buñuel, McCarthyism, devoid of reason and fueled by idiocy, has touched hundreds of artists and invariably affected the history of cinema.
By exploring the reporting of perennial broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck goes one step further in extending the conversation on McCarthyism to television’s ability to radically influence the viewers at home.
The film begins in the early 1950s, a time marked by the birth of television as a legitimate means of shaping public opinion. Enter Murrow, a beloved reporter who begins a polemical crusade against Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy. Shot in silky smooth black and white, Good Night, and Good Luck dives straight into Murrow’s vigorous attacks on McCarthy and his habit of make wild allegations without ancillary evidence. Each telecast consists of Murrow looking straight into the camera and delivering his unfiltered two cents on what McCarthy is doing to the American citizens he claims to be protecting from dissenting political views.
As if to provide levity, each of those stimulating scenes are followed by the CBS news division going out to a bar, gulping down scotch, and listening to a jazz performer until the tension of the workday subsides. The film slides into this cycle almost immediately. It’s a soothing process – measured harangues followed by soul-purifying jazz, all shot monochromatically.
To write any more about Good Night, and Good Luck is to write about the history it so gracefully and accurately depicts. The film seamlessly interweaves archival footage of McCarthy and the time period with talented actors, from David Strathairn (Murrow) to George Clooney (Fred Friendly), assuming the roles of historic journalists and producers.
In his sophomore directing debut, Clooney takes a non-partisan snapshot of a tumultuous time in television and America. Given the subject at hand, it would be remarkably easy (and understandable) to paint McCarthy as a fascist, the American version of Adolf Hitler. Instead, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov opt for accuracy, carefully recreating Murrow’s telecasts aimed to enlighten viewers at home.
Murrow fervently contended that television had the capability to expand the minds of people. These programs, as depicted in Good Night, and Good Luck never come off as didactic diatribes or dull, remedial history lessons, and Strathairn delivers Murrow’s message with vigor and sincerity. The film manages to be thought-provoking by allowing its actors and actresses to passionately convey their thoughts. When Murrow proclaims, “We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information,” one can’t help but draw comparisons to modern times. It’s hard not to shine a negative light on the way we utilize technology, television, and film when Murrow makes this astute note.
Like McCarthy’s aversion to pragmatism, we as a society tend to avoid news or films that may frighten or challenge us, intellectually or emotionally. We’re inundated with reality shows depicting everything other than reality, programs propagating celebrity gossip and slander, and “news” corporations claiming to be arbiters of the truth that blur the line between fact and fiction. Naturally, we as consumers have a choice in what we consume. However, the bulk of society generally selects shows that are easy to digest – unthreatening programs that momentarily amuse viewers looking to “turn off their brains” and not be taught a lesson in the mores of politics or journalism. Sadly, Fox News continues to be the most watched news network on the airwaves and six of the 15 most viewed shows are products of reality television.
By its end, Good Night, and Good Luck evolves into a prophetic vision of how television and film can be used to illuminate or insulate, educate or entertain. That’s not to suggest informative media can’t be entertaining, and vice versa. Clooney’s treatise on media manages to be both; an amalgamation of intelligence and entertainment. Unfortunately, upon further examination of the culture we inhabit, I’d contend we have – by in large – fatally misused a medium with the potential to inspire and inform.
Perhaps Cassius really was right: “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”