This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
Good Night and Good Luck.
Year of Release: 2005
Rating: PG for mild language.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No.
Spoiler Alert: Murrow: 1; McCarthy: 0
Is there anyone more badass than Edward R. Murrow? The answer is no. There is no one more badass.
I confess that this Catch Up might be a bit of a cop out, as Good Night, and Good Luck. is a movie that I showed my speech class last Tuesday and truthfully the only movie I’ve watched in weeks. In an effort to make public speaking slightly more educational than “here’s how to make my mom’s famous chocolate chip cookies,” I decided over a year ago to integrate films like Good Night and Good Luck, Network, and All the President’s Men into the mix to demonstrate the power of speech in mass media. The result, so far, has been overwhelmingly positive. The kids just love Ed Murrow.
Let’s set the stage. The film is black and white, the year is 1953, and television is steadily eclipsing radio as The Next Big Thing. The role of journalists is to report the news, not make it, but what to do when fearmongering Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy throws the country into its second Red Scare? When Lieutenant Milo Radulovich is discharged from the United States Air Force following suspicions that his father and sister have leftist leanings at best, communist ties at worst, the CBS newsroom must come to terms with an obligation bigger than impartiality: truth.
Murrow (played by David Straithairn, whom after this performance I can now finally forgive for The River Wild) and his team, including CBS president Fred Friendly (George Clooney) and correspondent Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.) quickly go on the offensive, using their primetime news program See It Now to expose McCarthy’s attack of Radulovich, which, as fits his pattern, is based mostly on hearsay. As a result of the telecast, Radulovich is reinstated. And though an exuberant Murrow is warned by his boss Bill Paley (Frost/Nixon’s Frank Langella) not to push too hard lest their sponsors jump ship, he wastes no time in plotting his next maneuver.
It isn’t long before an all-out war erupts between Murrow and McCarthy, and CBS broadcasts McCarthy’s response defending the purpose and actions of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. As anticipated, McCarthy deflects by accusing Murrow himself of having communist ties via membership with the Industrial Workers of the World. False charges, but charges heard around the country nonetheless, and the higher-ups at CBS are sweating. Not wanting to be caught up in controversy, aluminum giant ALCOA retracts their sponsorship and delivers the network a significant financial blow.
The ending to this true story is bittersweet. McCarthy is publicly exposed, condemned, and eventually censured by the U.S. Senate in a dazzling choice of original footage selected by actor, producer, and director Clooney. No actor plays McCarthy, you see, and while watching the crisp splices of the senator’s tirades we momentarily forget that, yes, this is the man himself, and the man himself really was that batshit insane.
The final nail in McCarthy’s coffin is Army counsel Joseph Welsh’s famous zinger, “Have you no decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” But afterward, Murrow, who by all rights should be drinking his weight in celebratory scotch, is informed by Bill Paley that See It Now is moving from primetime to a Sunday afternoon slot and that only five more episodes will air. Despite See It Now’s award-winning history (four Emmys and a Peabody during a six year run), quiz shows like The $64,000 Question are sweeping the nation and capitalism, as we see, has clearly prevailed.
Good Night and Good Luck bookends with Murrow’s 1958 speech, which, like the film in its entirety, serves as both a history lesson and a cautionary look to the future:
For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word survive literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show. If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then some courageous soul with a small budget might be able to do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done–and are still doing–to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizens from anything that is unpleasant.
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.
In the information age of 2014 we can surely see this insulation brought to life by journalists whose hands are tied by the politicized agendas of their networks; by a public who would rather be distracted by the antics of Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber than give a second thought to ISIS or Internet Neutrality. It is the journalist’s duty to unveil the world’s realities, no matter how unpleasant, and to balance such truth-telling with a willingness to speak independently of a predetermined mission. Edward R. Murrow is not only a reminder that this can be done; he is a model of how.