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Movie review: Good Night and Good Luck

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The movie Good Night, and Good Luck (2005 Warner Bros.) should be required viewing for every blogger and online journalist on the planet. Forget about the fact that it’s shot in black and white. Forget about the fact that it features actual footage of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Forget about the fact that it features some of the greatest acting talent in the industry. This movie is about one thing, and one thing only: Journalistic integrity.

Good Night, and Good Luck takes us back to the 1950s, when television has just started to find it’s way into American living rooms. It’s a factual accounting of events that occurred when CBS broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney), and their crew of investigative reporters and cameramen decided it was time to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

David Strathairn gives such an eerily accurate portrayal of Edward R. Murrow that one would think Murrow had access to a time machine and jumped ahead specifically to portray himself in this film. Which is an interesting thought. What if Edward R. Murrow were somehow able to make an appearance here, in the 21st Century? What might his opinion be of modern journalism, especially considering his opinion of mass media in 1958:

“If there are any historians about 50 or 100 years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes of one week of all 3 networks, they will there find, recorded in black and white and in color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have a built in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it may see a totally different picture too late.”

Good Night, and Good Luck opens with Murrow delivering the above speech to the Radio and Television News Director’s Association and Foundation in 1958 after he’d already gone head-to-head with McCarthy. That very same speech could be given just as easily today with one minor change. Replace the word television with the word Internet.

Edward R. Murrow was one of the most respected journalists of all time. In the ’40s and ’50s, to even mention the word Communism could have a devastating life-long effect on your personal and professional life. People who were blacklisted by McCarthy and his henchmen were financially ruined and most never recovered. Yet, when Murrow finally came out against McCarthy, 95% of the American population came out in support of Murrow because of his reputation for integrity.

Most reviewers watch this movie with an eye toward historical accuracy and Good Night, and Good Luck definitely delivers in that department. The inclusion of actual footage of some of the McCarthy hearings and his televised rebuttal to Murrow’s initial attack, alone, make this movie well worth your time. However, it’s that opening speech that really sets the tone.

In the initial conversation between Murrow and his CBS producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney), Murrow wants to send a crew to interview a young Lt. Milo Radulovich, who was forced to either leave the Army or renounce his father because it was suspected, but never proven, that his father had read a Communist newspaper. To Murrow, this was the last straw. Someone had to come out publicly against McCarthy, regardless of the consequences.

The hesitation that Murrow, Friendly and CBS Chairman William Paley, (Frank Langella) have about initiating this investigation has to do, in part, with the possible backlash they might bring down on themselves and CBS from McCarthy and his goons. But watch closely and listen to all the background conversation in this movie. Because these are real journalists talking here. Not sensationalistic, traffic-hungry bloggers.

The main concern is journalistic integrity. Murrow and Friendly can send a crew to interview Radulovich but how will they be able to present the other side of the story? Who can they interview, on camera, to rebut Radulovich’s claims? Because, in those days, even though Murrow was already concerned about the image of the media, journalists reported the news, both sides of it, and let the viewer make their own decision.

Yet, Radulovich’s story must be told, McCarthy must be stopped. So Murrow and Friendly do everything within their power to verify as much information as possible before going on air. They even invite the Army to comment. Throughout the movie you’ll hear reporters in the background asking if the source has been verified and, even more important, is there a second reliable source to backup the first.

Good Night, and Good Luck was directed by George Clooney and produced by Grant Heslov. Both men also worked together writing the screenplay.

The irony of this movie is that Murrow’s predictions about the future of television have not only come to pass, but the quality of news and information we see on the Internet makes it laughable that Murrow was even worried about television at all. Today, while most Americans should be concerned about whether or not we’re about to experience a government shut down because they can’t agree on a budget, the lead story on most sites is either who got eliminated on Dancing with the Stars last night, the audience reaction to the most recent Charlie Sheen meltdown, or how to burn belly fat and rescue abused puppies.

And when a blogger or journalist (wink, wink) does decide to do some cold, hard news reporting verifying sources isn’t even a consideration. The focus now is to be the first online with whatever you’re covering so you can get the lion’s share of the traffic. Never mind that Congresswoman Giffords wasn’t really killed in the shooting or that Shirley Sherrod wasn’t really a racist. And let’s get another picture of an abused puppy and some shots of Lady Gaga on the front page. These days, it’s even more profitable to misrepresent the facts and promote sensationalism. Controversy sells.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a must-see movie for everyone who remembers the days when you could trust your news sources and it’s also wake-up call for those bloggers and ‘journalists’ who can’t be bothered with doing the legwork anymore. Their sensationalistic commentary may be popular at the moment, but someday soon we’re going to really need a reliable source of information and it will be those journalists with a reputation for integrity and truth in reporting who will get all the traffic.

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About Donna Anderson

  • You’re right, Boeke. No one really discusses an issue anymore. They just look at how much Internet traffic they can get out of the headline. And if you do watch the news on TV you’ll notice that a lot of their spots are info they’re taking directly from bloggers, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. It’s no wonder we’re in the trouble we’re in right now. No one is really thinking about anything but making the next big viral splash.

  • Boeke

    Oh, and I’m amazed and disappointed that interviewers let partisan hacks get away with that stuff.

  • Boeke

    This IS a good movie. But wasted, I’m afraid, on current Americans, or current humans. Modern consumers of TV, internet, etc., seem only concerned with abbreviated sensationalism and clever offhand synopses of events.

    For example, modern political discuaaions seem only concerned with the horse race. Who will win? How will a statement affect the polls? Will the candidate gain or lose in the polls after stating a policy?

    I’ve quit watching the popular TV shows, such as the sunday morning cavalcade, because they are simply partisan talking points and do not illuminate the issues and policies in any way that can help me.

  • Hi Baritone,
    Great point. And actually, the 2012 election was in the back of my mind when I wrote this. Can you imagine how much of a fiasco that’s going to be? Obama is already heating up FB.

    It’s sad that in the 50s we turned to people like Murrow and Cronkite because we could trust them to deliver the truth in a fair and unbiased fashion. And today we turn to bloggers because we can trust them to deliver sensationalistic crap – fast! And what’s even sadder is, a large portion of the population still believes something is true because they read it on the Internet.

    Thanks for commenting Baritone. Have a good weekend.

  • Nice review. I loved the film. Clooney has really done some nice work over the past several years.

    I don’t have a problem with your concerns regarding the state of journalism and the often bad influence of the internet.

    However, I also find fault with a # of politicians who are knowingly and purposely taking advantage of the 24/7-365 news cycle to present what are more often than not blatent lies, and doing so in the knowledge that the “non-truth” simply doesn’t matter. They are, more often than not, preaching to the choir which will eat and digest anything and everything they say as gospel.

    With the everpresent, ever-airing media and the ubiquitous internet, there are no holds barred. One might think such a situation would lead to some reasonable transparency, but no. It just offers a myriad of opportunities to lie and obfuscate without fear of retribution. Many journalists simply become pawns in the process.