The American left is generally associated with sticking up for diversity: civil rights, cultural sensitivity, and political correctness. The left has been so successful at advocating diversity that the American right has evolved a strategy to exploit it. The right now plays the “diversity” card to plead for “equal time” in college courses and in newsrooms, and the fundamentalist Christian right has adopted the arguments of open-mindedness in an attempt to get creationism back into biology classes.
But as Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) says in Good Night, and Good Luck., just because there are two sides to an issue, doesn’t mean that there are two equally true and valid sides.
Watchdogs and Lapdogs
PG for thematic elements, language
Good Night, and Good Luck. looks at Joseph McCarthy’s dirty tactics in trying to root out Communists in the government (and beyond) in the early 1950s. History has already shown that McCarthy went too far, probably doing more harm than good. So why make a movie about it now? Sure, the left may feel disenfranchised because the legislative and executive branches are currently dominated by the right. But things aren’t as bad for the left now as when McCarthy was on the loose.
Writer/director George Clooney (Grant Heslov co-wrote) answers that question by framing the story in a TV set. Clooney chooses Murrow as his protagonist, a man who stands up to the government when the rest of the media are content to be lapdogs.
One can sense a parallel with today’s media, who, after five years of giving the Bush administration a free pass on questionable “facts” and motives, are beginning to ask hard questions of the administration and — just maybe — to demand answers.
Lest the current right-leaning pundits accuse the movie of being slanted too far to the left, let me point out that Murrow’s accomplishment, as dramatized in Good Night, is not that he made a political attack on a conservative senator — it’s not a question of left-versus-right. Rather, it is that he demands facts, proof, and answers, from people who have enough power to abuse it. That the watchdog barked at a Republican is less important than the fact that the watchdog barked at all, when all the other watchdogs were asleep.
Standing Up to Bullies
Let the record show to any right-leaning pundit that the movie does not glamorize Murrow’s accomplishment. If anything, the movie does the opposite. Director Clooney pulls off an amazing piece of tension in a twenty-minute scene showing Murrow and his colleagues sweating bullets as they prepare their critical report on the heretofore unchallenged senator McCarthy.
Why should it be so hard to stand up to a bully and demand the facts? It shouldn’t. But in a climate of fear such as this country saw in the early 1950s, one’s career and reputation could be ruined overnight by a power-mad politician. Bullies do have power, particularly in favorable climatic conditions. Standing up to them is hard, and not everyone who does stays standing.
Clooney relieves this tension every twenty minutes or so by letting us unwind in a bar with the great vocal jazz of Dianne Reeves. (Those looking for Clooney’s aunt Rosemary on the soundtrack will have to cross one degree of separation: Reeves’ arrangements were written by Matt Catingub, who has worked with Rosemary Clooney on some of his albums.)
If Good Night, and Good Luck. sounds a little pedantic — even preachy — it is. The point of the movie is that the media are the watchdogs of government. When the watchdogs are asleep, corrupt or power-hungry politicians can do a lot of damage to ordinary citizens. It’s not a point that can be made with song-and-dance or comedy sketches (except for perhaps The Daily Show).
In fact, Clooney seems to apologize for the wonky nature of the movie by closing with a speech by Murrow wherein he asks that his medium be allowed to stop entertaining every hour of every day. Maybe a little time for shows about history or civics is good for us.
Still, one wonders if Clooney couldn’t have punched it up a little bit. There is a long sequence, maybe five minutes, of footage straight from the Army-McCarthy hearings. Older members of the audience will have seen this before, either on TV, or from films like Point of Order (a strong recommendation if you haven’t seen it). It hardly seems like the job of a feature film to present this footage to Americans.
And quite a bit of the movie is footage of David Strathairn simply reading Murrow’s words. That is not a very cinematic achievement, no matter how lush the black-and-white photography or how many angles it’s shot from.
Still, Clooney manages to make McCarthyism relevant again, and he manages to engage the audience with both tension and release. If the end product is a little pedagogical, perhaps it too is for our own good.