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May 07, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck

By Lance Mannion

Finally had the chance to see Good Night, and Good Luck, and now I am mad at myself for not having made the effort when it was in the theaters here when it first came out.  Maybe then I could have enjoyed it as just a movie and not spent 80 of its 93 mintues dwelling on all the fodder for political arguments it presented.

Watching it on DVD, I wasted too much time thinking every minute of Right Wing kulturkampfers' attempts in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards to discredit it, Brokeback Mountain, and the other three nominees for the Oscar for Best Picture.  This is too bad, because Good Night, and Good Luck isn't really a very political film.

But it was too bad in another way that it wasn't more political.

I think it would have been a better "just a movie" if its political implications had been generated more hotly from within rather than stoked by ideas brought to it by Liberals like me and Conservatives determined to dislike it on principle.

There are things about Good Night, and Good Luck that are "Liberal."  The idea that the Communist Witch Hunts of the 1950s were pernicious and destructive, the presentation of Joe McCarthy as a villain and Ed Murrow as a hero, the notion that it is the job of journalists to challenge the lies of political leaders, especially powerful ones, and to expose their wrongdoing and abuses of power and trust---these are all "Liberal" only because "Conservatives" have a beef with historical fact, an aversion to admitting their own mistakes, and a vested interest in seeing that certain lying politicians get away with it.

The only honestly Liberal vs. Conservative clash of ideas is in the movie's taking it for granted that the threat to the nation from homegrown Communists was nothing compared to threat to Americans' civil liberties and, indeed, their very lives---ruin a person's career and you've destroyed their life---posed by the Witch Hunters.

Conservatives can argue that the threat from the Enemy Within was real and truly dangerous, but they also have to show that the methods of Nixon, HUAC, McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover were actually useful in helping to thwart that threat and save us from the danger.  They can point to Alger Hiss, but they have to prove that getting Hiss was worth the climate of fear they created and the ruined lives of all those innocents they took down in the process.

Just restating fears and paranoid theories about what might have happened is not enough.  Nor is going on a rant about how evil the Soviet Union was.  That's the given.

At any rate if you sit down to watch it, accepting the idea that a free, energetic, and courageous Press is a good thing in a democracy and you hold no brief for Joe McCarthy and his methods, Good Night, and Good Luck isn't a particularly political movie.  And I was a bit disappointed with it because of that.

In fact, I think even Conservatives might have liked it better if it had been more Liberal, if it had gone after McCarthy the way Murrow and his boys (and girl) went after him.

Absent a political ax to grind, there isn't much dramatic tension to sustain the story. 

Once upon a time I read a conservative writer's dismissal of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which she saw as nothing more than an allegory for McCarthyism.  (See note below.)  The difference between the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, she wrote, was that there's no such thing as witches while there were real Communists abroad in the land.

But there were witches.  That is, there were a bunch of teenage girls who were experimenting with what they thought of as witchcraft.  And there were Communists in America who were working to bring about a workers' revolution.

But handfuls of people gathered around mimeograph machines in basements had no more chance of destroying the American Way of Life than a group of adolescent girls dancing in the woods at night and telling each other ghost stories had of calling spirits from the briny deep.

The parallels are in the way other people with their own political agendas exaggerated the threats and whipped up fears that they then exploited as a way of consolidating their own power.

The point then, as it is now, with the cries of treason and anti-Americanism, was to stifle dissent and scare people into voting Republican.

This is a "Liberal" reading of history, but it is taken for granted in Good Night, and Good Luck to the point of being almost missing from the plot.  It's not quite treated as historical window dressing.  We see enough of Annie Lee Moss and Milo Radulovich to get the idea of what was going on.

What we don't see is it going on.  The movie never shows McCarthyism reaching out through the television screen to touch any living, breathing human beings.

When they decided that McCarthy would play himself in the movie, that he would appear only in the form of real news footage, director George Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov may have had in mind how Richard Nixon is seen on only TV screens in the background in All The President's Men.  But Nixon's heavy hand was felt throughout without his real presence being necessary.  It was in the fear of the people who worked for the White House and the Committee to Re-elect, the aides and secretaries Woodward and Bernstein tried to talk to.

There are no comparable scenes in Good Night, and Good Luck.  The only victims of McCarthyism we're shown are Moss and Radulovich (who was never targeted by McCarthy himself) and because we see them only on TV they don't come alive as characters.  They are basically props in the How I Got That Story plot.

And that plot isn't all that compelling because we don't see Murrow get that story.  We see him and his reporters and producers and cameramen talking about what they're doing, but we only see any of them out doing any reporting in one short scene.  The human drama of Good Night, and Good Luck is in the three subplots, any one of which could have carried a movie on its own, with the Murrow against McCarthy story as its background and subplot.

The least dramatic of the three---that is, the one that comes closest to the border between drama and comedy---involves Robert Downey Jr and Patricia Clarkson as a couple working for Murrow who have to hide the fact that they're married because CBS has a policy prohibiting employees from marrying each other.

The subplot concerning Murrow and Fred Friendly's contest of wills with CBS head Bill Paley is interesting because of Paley's ambivalence.  He likes and admires Murrow, he wants Murrow to do the job he was hired to do, but he is a businessman and the two sides of him are at odds to the point of his becoming almost a Jekyll and Hyde, with each side rooting against itself even as it dominates the situation at hand.  But in that plot Paley not Murrow is the main character.

The subplot that was most compelling to me was the unraveling, nervous breakdown, and tragic end of newscaster Don Hollenbeck, played with a desperately cheerful vulnerability by Ray Wise that's painful to watch. There are a couple of short scenes between Hollenbeck and Murrow that are among the most heartbreaking I've ever seen on film.  In both Hollenbeck is struggling mightily to hide all the cracks in the foundation of his pride but new ones are appearing as he speaks and Wise's smile broadens with each new fissure; meanwhile David Stathairn as Murrow, without saying a word, shows his horror and concern at what's happening and also his disgust.  He is watching his friend driving himself off a cliff and he wants to stop him, but at the same time he's blaming the man for his weakness.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a good movie, if not as great a one as I expected.  Clooney does a remarkable job of capturing the look and sounds of the 1950s without making the mistake of a lot of directors of period pieces who push the period details into the audience's faces so we can admire their scrupulous attention to history.  The look and feel of the film is so natural that there were times when I forgot that I was looking at a movie made in 2005 and not 50 years ago, and there were other times when I forgot I was watching a work of fiction.

And Strathairn is brilliant as Murrow, and he does much of his best work with his silences, which, considering he's playing a man known for his voice and use of words, is a surprising bit of actorly craftiness, in both the sense of professional craftsmanship and trickiness.  There's a moment after he finishes interviewing Liberace (played by Liberace's ghost in the form of the real film clip from Murrow's other show, the one he did to pay penance to Bill Paley for See It Now, Person to Person), when with just a twitch of the jaw Strathairn reveals the degree of disgust he feels, for himself and for Liberace, for the lie they've just told together about Liberace's hopes for finding the right girl to marry and settle down to raise a family with.

Strathairn does not do as complete an impersonation of Murrow as Philip Seymour Hoffman does of Capote, but somehow his portrayal stands apart from the other actors'  in a way that Hoffman's doesn't in his film, perhaps because Capote was doing an impersonation so the staginess of Hoffman's acting seems more "natural."  For most of Good Night, and Good Luck Strathairn is playing against other actors who are not doing character parts.  They are all young leading men and one leading woman playing their parts in the easy, naturalistic style of American movie actors.  Consequently, in their scenes together Strathairn's performance is almost out of place.  (Clooney himself, though, while not impersonating Fred Friendly, does a terrific job of effacing himself as a leading man.  He makes himself a good second banana to Strathairn.)  Strathairn is at his best in his scenes with Frank Langella as Bill Paley and Wise as Hollenbeck, the only other character actors in the film.

This is another reason why I think it was a mistake not to have a McCarthy played by an actor.  McCarthy himself was not much of character.  He was weak, self-pitying, bombastic, and untelegenic.  Arthur Miller describes the difficulty contemporary audiences might have believing that such a man ever frightened an entire nation down to its socks:

[F]ilms of Senator Joseph McCarthy are rather unsettling—if you remember the fear he once spread. Buzzing his truculent sidewalk brawler's snarl through the hairs in his nose, squinting through his cat's eyes and sneering like a villain, he comes across now as nearly comical, a self-aware performer keeping a straight face as he does his juicy threat-shtick.

We need to feel the man as a human being instead of just seeing him as his own televised ghost.  Casting someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman or John C. Reilly would have, in addition to giving Strathairn's performance the counterweight I think it needed, would have allowed us to react to McCarthy as a person and made the threat he posed to people and the country more alive to us now.

Note:  The bane of my existence as a blogger is having a better than average memory but not a photographic one.  The conservative writer I mentioned above was not that would-be whitewash artist for McCarthy's reputation, Ann Coulter.  It was someone with more intellectual weight and a real reputation as a writer.  I think it might have been Clare Booth Luce.  Google hasn't so far turned up the article.  But whoever it was I believe her criticisms of The Crucible represent a general and serious Conservative line on Miller.  The Crucible is a very good play as simply a straight-forward dramatization of what happened in Salem in 1692, but its place in the history of American theatre has been mainly secured by its allegorical relationship to Joe McCarthy's America.  Miller wrote the play as a political statement, and if you reject the idea that McCarthyism had anything in common with the Witch Trials, then you can make a reasonable argument that as political theater the play is a failure, an attractive argument to Conservatives who still don't want to face up to what McCarthy stood for.

Miller wrote an essay for the New Yorker when the movie version of The Crucible came out in 1996 in which he made the case for the play's continued political relevancy apart from its origins as a warning against the evils of McCarthyism.

Bloggers' Hat-trick:  Cross-posted at my place and at the American Street.

May 7, 2006 in Film | Permalink


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I appreciate your Henry IV reference!

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | May 7, 2006 1:55:20 PM

"...the difficulty contemporary audiences might have believing that such a man ever frightened an entire nation down to its socks"

Haven't seen the movie, but I can see exactly the point and purpose of Clooney's decision. Look at Our President George, watch him give a speech or news conference, and ask yourself if Bush is so scarey a person. Of course not. It is the millions of people he represents that scare us silly.

McCarthy was not that scarey, and did not do that much damage. He really wasn't even much of a leader, inarticulate, ugly, uncharismatic. That is the damn point. He had millions of friends and allies who used McCarthy to focus their hate and advance their agendas and hide from responsibility behind. In a small midwest town in the early eighties, I had to get "Das Kapital" from behind the desk and sign for it, like Lady Chatterly's Lover" or "Naked Lunch".

There is decent movie with Ginger Rogers called Storm Warning about the Klan that catches a bit of the spirit pf the period. Storm Center with Bette Davis is even better.

You aren't gonna like it, Ezra ain't gonna like it. It wasn't about Nixon or HUAC or McCarthy. Now torture and rendition and Iraq aren't about Bush or Rumsfeld or Cheney. It is about Fred and Gene Volokh and Trevino and your parents or neighbors or drinking buddies.

Germany and Italy could not conceivably fall back into fascism; the thirties were about some bad leadership. France maybe, but France is a lot like us. America has recurrent bouts of radical evil, and it isn't because a handful of assholes grab power. It is because America has millions of radically evil citizens.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 7, 2006 2:12:14 PM

I am getting damn awful sick and tired, and honestly it isn't the right I am getting tired of. The Goldbergs and Trevinos and the rest are gonna say: "Well, I voted for Bush, but I didn't expect the torture and incompetence and corruption and profligacy. Darn, that guy doesn't represent my beliefs, and I am damn pissed about it. DON'T BLAME ME."

And you are gonna let them, and again in twenty years, and then again until we are all cowering in rubble. Ain't you tolerant and magnaminous. Well, I am on my 4th round of this bullshit, and I know who is reponsible. And I stopped socializing with Republican scum during the Reagan administration.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 7, 2006 2:24:38 PM

"...millions of radically evil citizens"

in trying to understand the nature of how others see the world...political choices, moral relativism and much of the rest, i wonder what you mean when you say "millions of radically evil citizens".
... that is a stark, radical judgement and i wonder if you really mean it.
are "they" redeemed by any of the good that they do, or does their way of thinking and being make them unambiguously "radically evil"?
i am curious to understand what you meant.

Posted by: jacqueline | May 7, 2006 3:08:43 PM

"...or does their way of thinking and being make them unambiguously "radically evil"?"

Anne Coulter:"We should bomb their cities, kill their leaders, and convert their children to Christianity."

Now it is usual for the decent left to say that Anne Coulter even took it back, that she doesn't represent the majority of her party, and that there are few others who have said such things. Although there a lot who come close. Yes, few other Republicans have said such things.

But with the stipulation of the party shift of the Southern Strategy, so that right-wing Democrats of ages past are now the core of the Republican party.

I believe the base of the Republican Party is as tribal and xenophobic as Coulter and Malkin, and without external restraints would engage in regular atrocities and repeated attempts at genocide, if slavery was inconvenient or impossible. That they hate most of the Bill of Rights and principles it stands for. That they feel the Enlightenment was a world-historical tragedy. Evidence? I can provide mountains.

It is chickenshit to not admit that Coulter thrives because of the vast masses who love her. And they are not "just kidding."

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 7, 2006 4:11:26 PM

Really good srticle, Lance.

I was lucky enough to get tickets to an off-Broadway play called "Trumbo" with Tim Robbins as Dalton Trumbo and Paul Giamatti as his son. It pretty much consisted of Trumbos letters over a 15 year period read aloud by the actors with no other cast except for occasional McCarthy heaings footage over a TV on stage. It was superb and the best thing I've ever seen about an era I'm still fascinated but disgusted with. Really never thought we'd see these fascist tactics in the mainstream again( IMO, you can trace it to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine) and like you, was disappointed the movie didn't slam these then-and-now anti-American McCarthyites harder. Walter Cronkite says in his autobiography..."McCarthy was a fascist." We also know he drank a quart a day, was a pathological liar, and bragged several times to friends that the only book he ever read was Mein Kamph.

In my semi-educated opinion, its fascism that has always been the serious threat to our capitalistic-democracy, not communism. Anyone who has read a decent amount of 20th century hisstory and had their eyes open since 1980 (or 1960?) knows it. We really need to bring the "F" word mainstream if we're ever going to defeat these lying big-brotherlovers. I'm so sick of these RWers I can barely stand it.

Posted by: mark | May 7, 2006 6:43:56 PM

Wow, I hate to spam a thread, but if I am gonna label an entire political party genocidal perhaps I need to offer a partial defense, or at least a partial explanation of how my sick mind works.

Besides the Ann Coulter quote above, I offer:

hilzoy on Shelby Steele Shelby is, of course, saying that White Guilt is preventing us from the necessary killing of whole bunches of colored people.

Now you know, a little history:

Douglas MacArthur in Korea

"MacArthur repeatedly requested authorization to strike Manchuria and major Chinese cities with thirty to fifty nuclear weapons" (1950) So Truman fired the nut. China immediately went into overtime to become a nuclear power. Sound familar?

Barry Goldwater "(Goldwater's own rhetoric on nuclear war was viewed by many as quite uncompromising, a view buttressed by off-hand comments such as, "Let's lob one into the men's room at the Kremlin.") [2]" "Uncompromising" included a specific refusal to rule out the use of theatre nukes in Vietnam. The "Daisy Ad" was effective because it contained a lot of truth.

(Skipping over Nixon and Reagan, who were complicated, and would make the comment too lengthy.)

And now again Bush won't rule out the use of nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike against a relatively weak non-nuclear nation. You see my problem is seeing Bush in a very long and large context, not as an isolated nincompoop. He is a standard Republican.

So over 55 years do we see a pattern yet? The casual threat of nuclear attack against weak non-nuclear nations. Why, what the heck do these three guys have in common? It is not the fault of the party base that these three beloved figures had nutty ideas? Just coincidence?

I could also do histories of attitudes toward domestic dissent, xenophobia and racism, economic policy, aggressive moralism. This party has a consistent history, and Bush is the rule, not the exception.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 7, 2006 6:55:06 PM

in my own way, i understand what it is you are saying.
i am interested in what you say,as i have difficulty putting a face on evil, although i can certainly sense its presence.
absense of love, forgiveness, compassion, light.
...this was something that i really struggled with during the time of carla fay tucker's execution.
the face of evil can change like a shapeshifter.
so when you, yourself, speak of a group of radically evil people, you see something in an absolute way.
...no bending, no shifting, no allowances, no humanity there. no light.
....and so, reading your comment, i was just wondering about the deeper level of spiritual thinking and how you concluded that with such certainty.
it struck me as more than a political statement.

Posted by: jacqueline | May 7, 2006 7:52:51 PM

"Conservatives can argue that the threat from the Enemy Within was real and truly dangerous, but they also have to show that the methods of Nixon, HUAC, McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover were actually useful in helping to thwart that threat and save us from the danger. They can point to Alger Hiss, but they have to prove that getting Hiss was worth the climate of fear they created and the ruined lives of all those innocents they took down in the process."

Why would they have to do that? That seems to make as much sense as, To prove Saddam Hussein was an authoritarian tyrant, you have to demonstrate a war of choice to depose him & bring Democracy to the country is sane & would work.

It seems to me they have to acknowledge the opposite; that communism & soviet infiltration were dangerous but supporting the actions of demagogues like McCarthy & his co-cpnspirators, ultimately did more damage to the cause of anti-communism & discredit it, than it did to promote it.

"They can point to Alger Hiss, but they have to prove that getting Hiss was worth the climate of fear they created and the ruined lives of all those innocents they took down in the process."

Well, actually no they don't. And I think any sane, reasonable person looking back on that era would be able tp guage that demagoguery & hysteria of the time were not nccessary to capturing and bringing to justice those communists who were directly trying to harm the U.S. or give aid to it's enemies.

Posted by: Dustin | May 7, 2006 8:25:30 PM

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