Hippo Manchester
November 10, 2005

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Film: Good Night, and Good Luck (PG)

By Amy Diaz

Edward Murrow battles the witch hunt politics of Senator Joe McCarthy and the commercial needs of the television industry in the smart, well-made, patriotic Good Night, and Good Luck.

Patriotic? Yes. In the same week where I saw Marines cheer like kids at a matinee at the “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now I felt exactly the same sense of giddiness watching Murrow and his boys from See It Now bring down McCarthy because it was the right thing to do for the country and because they’d had enough of this domestic terrorist. I didn’t quite stand up and say “Ooh-Rah” but the sentiment was the same.

And it’s not just Murrow’s decision to go after McCarthy, to use his own words and his own shoddy investigations to illustrate the senator’s senseless and dangerous demagoguery, that makes his fight so cheer-on-able. It’s his career-endangering stand against his own network, which even in its golden news age of the 1950s prized advertiser-pleasing fluff over more abrasive investigative fare. It’s a rare occasion (the early days of Hurricane Katrina coverage are perhaps the only recent example) when television reporters break through the show biz and say “this isn’t right.”

The movie begins as Murrow (played with some serious class by David Straithairn) receives a broadcasting lifetime achievement award and begins to give a speech that is basically a big smack to the head of television news. Air scripted interviews with Liberace where you pretend that he might marry a woman, Murrow essentially says, but occasionally get out there and report the damn news. Then we flashback to an instance where he actually does this.

Fred Friendly (George Clooney) and Murrow decide that, despite the potential harm it could do to both their careers, they will expose the  sinister nature of McCarthy’s “investigation” of the Communist threat. They do this despite the fact that their investigation is in some ways one-sided (though they give McCarthy an almost unheard-of ability to respond unchallenged), something Murrow himself has always said reports of this kind should never be. But in this case, he argues, there are not two reasonable sides to the issue and McCarthy’s smear tactics need to be called out for what they are.

Equally as ominous a foe as McCarthy is network head William Paley (Frank Langella). Though nominally supportive of Murrow, he is primarily concerned about the advertisers, something Murrow understands but wants Paley to occasionally set aside for the public good. It is a struggle every bit as relevant today.

As dapper as Murrow’s perfectly tailored suits, as sophisticated as the cigarettes smoked by everybody (including Murrow, on air), Good Night, and Good Luck perfectly captures the look and feel of its time. The black-and-white movie blends flawlessly with the black-and-white footage from the 1950s (the Liberace interview and the footage of McCarthy is all the real deal). There is a coolness to the film, a defeated air that seems to hang on Murrow like his cigarette smoke that keeps the movie from being smug or self-important. It celebrates Murrow’s small victory but lets us know that in many ways even the TV news of Murrow’s day was already lost to the interests of advertisers and their customers.