Whenever I want to show my students what good journalism looks like I always recommend that they watch Good night, and good luck. It dramatizes the showdown between Ed Murrow, legendary newsman and reporter at CBS and Senator Joseph McCarthy.
In the early 1950s McCarthy was at the height of his power. With the Cold War really beginning to hot up, his Un-American Activities Committee decided to start rooting out Communists from government, the military and the entertainment community. This would have been less of an issue if McCarthy’s methods had followed due process and procedure. Instead his name become forever linked with bullying, accusations by rumour and guilt by association. In many cases people’s lives and careers were ruined because they had simply attended a few meetings or knew people who had. As the witch-hunts gathered pace, increasing pressure was put on witnesses to name other suspects as a way of clearing themselves. As a result of this paranoia infiltrated every aspect of American society.
Ed Murrow, played by David Strathairn, decided to confront McCarthy on his show. He uses an investigation into an Airman, forced to resign from the military because of his father’s suspected links with communists, to run a programme critiquing McCarthy’s methods. This doesn’t go down very well with his bosses at CBS as they worry about losing advertisers and business. Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly have to deal with attacks from the government, and their own colleagues, as they press ahead. McCarthy responds by essentially accusing Murrow of being a communist himself, and even implying that by critiquing his methods he is supporting the communists.
Clooney made Good night and good luck in 2005 and it has obvious parallels with what was going on then. The US Government then, like in the 1950s was ignoring civil liberties and the Constitution, all justified in the name of national security (how the Patriot Act was ever passed I’ll never know). On both occasions paranoia became commonplace as people began to question whether dissent was actually a form of disloyalty.
The film asks many important questions such as; is it the role of unelected journalists to hold governments to account, should journalists always be objective, and to what extent are they responsible to those around him. The film deals with all of these issues in a measured thoughtful way, and there are a few points where even Murrow’s methods are questioned. Clooney as a good filmmaker does not shy away from showing the other side of these arguments. When Murrow accuses the head of CBS of censoring him, he is reminded of several occasions where Murrow himself censored because it was expedient for him to do so.
The movie is beautifully filmed in evocative black and white and all the actors bring their A-game. A smart move on Clooney’s part is to not have an actor play McCarthy. Whenever McCarthy does show up they use real footage from the time. I suspect that if they had used an actor it would have diluted the impact of McCarthy’s words, used here to devastating effect.
The final sequence where Murrow addresses a roomful of his peers about the future of television is one of the films highlights. He questions the use of the medium to inform and educate but worries that eventually it only entertain and distract. Unfortunately it seems the latter has come to pass, as the line between news, sensationalism and entertainment becomes increasingly blurred. Here is the part of the speech where he talks about the importance of ideas and information:
For another great political movie about the McCarthy witch-hunts I’d highly recommend the The Front staring Woody Allen (one of the few movies he acts in but didn’t direct or write).
Here is the trailer for Good night and good luck: