Why I Like George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck"
- Saturday, November 26, 2005
George Clooney is a liberal. There, I've said it. It is nothing more than he would admit about himself. How much of that agenda-- whatever it might include – has found its way into his critically-acclaimed film "Good Night and Good Luck"? Some conservative critics have taken Clooney to task for appearing to soft pedal the battle against communism that raged in the 1950s because of his careful selection of McCarthy footage to include in the film that made McCarthy look ham-fisted and extremist. Such critics also contend that Clooney goes out of his way to make the media personalities heroic – a no-no in an age when conservative wariness of big media is nearly as pronounced as their fear of big government.
While I am concerned that some people will see "Good Night and Good Luck" and think that they know all they need to about the McCarthy era, it is no more than I am concerned that people who see "Schindler's List" or "Saving Private Ryan" will think they know all they need to about World War II. My hope is that movies such as these will spark interest in people and drive them to learn more. Recognizing that this is a drama and not a documentary, Clooney does a terrific job of creating in Murrow a human hero, with many admirable qualities, whose loyalty is to the truth above the corporation that employs him. Murrow's pluck allows him to persevere despite perceived government threats, and he is as unsparing toward his colleagues in the media as he is toward McCarthy.
The Media – Warts and All
Despite criticism that Clooney's film presents a white hat/black hat view of the world of political media, "Good Night and Good Luck" does not present an unalloyed favorable impression of the newsroom. Daniel Boorstin, in his landmark book, "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America," exposes the inverse relationship between the media's need for new stories and the scarce availability of newsworthy items. The effect, Boorstin notes, is that the media endlessly repeats the details of stories, the more salacious the better, to fill in the gaps until something new arises. "Good Night and Good Luck" is not shy in exposing this part of the news-gathering process. In a telling scene, Clooney's character, Murrow producer Fred Friendly, confronts his reporters with their lack of material for an upcoming show. He commissions them to get out there and find the news, and if they can't find it, to make it. And though Murrow is depicted as a newsman of considerable gravitas, he is not above the puff-piece interview of Liberace.
Far from being a media love fest, the film opens with a Murrow speech in which he takes the media to task for being nothing more than an instrument of entertainment rather than fulfilling its loftier "fourth estate" mission to tell the truth, even when it is dangerous or uncomfortable for people in power. He warns, in a prophetic fashion, that if the assembled newsmen are not careful, they will preside over little more than lights and wires in a box designed to distract the American people from the pressures and problems of life.
Additionally, many conservative critics of the film neglect to mention that it was the media that provided the platform and pushed the propaganda that made McCarthy possible. McCarthy's appearances fueled the "Red scare" and the media's repetition of allegations – in newspapers, on radio and television, substantiated or not – helped spread the contagion. Yes, now that communism resides on the ash-heap of history it is easy to underestimate its threat in the '50s, and, yes, Clooney is selective in his presentation of the senator. But abuses did occur – the term "McCarthyism" did not enter our cultural lexicon without cause. While "Good Night and Good Luck" paints a heroic picture of Murrow, it is not unilaterally kind to the media. "Good Night and Good Luck" is willing to show both sides of the television industry.
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