Directed by George Clooney
Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Good Night and Good Luck is a strange film. If you enjoy it enough that it inspires you to learn more about the story’s events, your research will ultimately diminish your pleasure. Although the events are accurate, the context in which they happened isn’t always, resulting in a decrease of the story’s power and the characters’ nobility.
The film is a docudrama that takes place over five months from late 1953 and into ’54 during the early days of television when CBS newsman Edward R Murrow and his staff of the documentary news program See It Now challenged the actions and statements of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was scouring the country for communists.
McCarthy, who plays himself through newsreels and kinescopes, was out of control and damaged a lot of lives with his hearings. One such man who got caught up in the maelstrom is U.S. Navy pilot Lt. Mil Radulovich, who is kicked out of the Navy because he is deemed a security risk based on some things his father and sister may have or have not done. The uncertainty stems from the fact that he is declared guilty without a trial and all the evidence is sealed. Although his bosses at CBS make clear their unease, Murrow tells the story of Radulovich on Oct. 20, 1953. This prompts a response that Murrow will be outed as a communist sympathizer if this type of reporting continues.
The threat brings Murrow and his team out swinging. With the okay from CBS boss William Paley, they put together “A Report on Joseph R. McCarthy” that airs on March 9, 1954, filled with sound bites and visuals of McCarthy in his own words that exposes him to the nation. McCarthy is offered an opportunity to come on the program and respond to any and all charges. Radulovich becomes mysteriously reinstated. Murrow is vindicated and driven to keep going.
The March 16, 1954 edition, “Senator McCarthy Against Annie Lee Moss,” focuses on the hearing of an elderly black woman who works in the Pentagon code room. She is very frail and has no idea what she’s doing there. McCarthy leaves the hearing early and places it in the charge of his counsel Roy Cohn, who takes the brunt of senators’ attacks when they demand to see proof of the charges other than gossip and rumor.
On April 6, 1954, McCarthy appears on See It Now; however, in his prefilmed segment he blasts away at Murrow’s character, following through on the earlier threats, while spending no time in response to any of the allegations against him. Murrow denies the charges and makes an impassioned, eloquent plea about the Senator, his methods and the need to stand up to them. McCarthy is eventually censured by the Senate and loses his committee chairmanship.
Murrow’s reward is that See It Now is moved out of its weeknight slot to Sundays and only five more shows are ordered. The show isn’t making any money for the network of affliates and he is told that people want entertainment from TV.
Good Night and Good Luck is a very good film while you are watching it. The story is very patriotic as Murrow and his team stand up to the injustices of McCarthy and the system that allows him to function. The film itself is a marvel to look at, filled with exquisite black and white cinematography by Robert Elswitt, outstanding production design by Jim Bissell and talented acting by the ensemble, led by David Strathairn, who gives a brilliant performance in the title role that should be remembered and rewarded during award season. It is all tied together by the smart, directing choices of Clooney.
However, when you do some research, it turns out that Murrow wasn’t leading the charge for truth and liberty; he got to the party late as McCarthy’s power was fading and the tide had already turned. The truth behind the story taints the future remembrances of Good Night and Good Luck, which is a great disservice to the amazing cast and crew.
In his well-researched Slate.com article, Jack Shafer details and clarifies some omissions and inaccuracies of the film. He writes about those who stood up to McCarthy before Murrow did, such as broadcasters Elmer Davis and Martin Agronsky, journalist Drew Pearson and Washington Post cartoonist Herblock. Shafer relates See It Now’s producer Fred Friendly’s version of a meeting with Air Force officials that differs from the scenes in a movie.
Most people will agree that McCarthy was a zealot and his footage reinforces that impression; however, the country did have a reason to worry about people in the government spying for Moscow. He wasn’t the only one in Congress who felt this way, but he was the loudest and certainly most abusive with his power. In 1995 the Venona files were released and showed that even though McCarthy’s hearings came up empty, some of the people he was investigating were Soviet agents. In fact, Annie Lee Moss, although she wasn’t proven to be a spy, was discovered to have been a Communist Party member, meaning she lied to Congress. The film makes McCarthy’s concerns foolish and unwarranted, which isn’t completely correct.
Murrow is a legend in CBS radio and television due to his entire body of work, and he did assist in McCarthy’s downfall, but there’s no reason to believe that it wouldn’t have happened anyway without his involvement. He did challenge McCarthy directly, but the story is more complex than is presented. The subtleties of the truth would have made a much better film.
Even though the film as a whole is flawed, its parts are greater than its sum and I would still recommend seeing it because there is an amazing collection of talent on display that I found inspiring.