Why I Like George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck"
- 2005 26 Nov
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.
Members of the Media Can Be Heroic
Praise where praise is due. Murrow was a heroic figure to many. His trench reporting over the radio in WWII was lauded for Murrow's bravery as well as the tenor of his broadcasts – which sometimes occurred while bombs were dropping nearby. Some credit Murrow's brand of personal reporting with drawing the United States into WWII. He was a giant in his day and commanded a level of respect to which contemporary reporters, such as Dan Rather, could only aspire.
In "Good Night and Good Luck," Murrow is depicted as a man of conviction and character – willing to sacrifice, if need be, in pursuit of the truth. When a sponsor threatens to pull out of a program exposing McCarthy, Murrow volunteers to pay from his own pocket (and that of his producer) the lost revenue to the network. He is also depicted as thoughtful. He does not rush into his confrontation with McCarthy, but instead counts the cost to his network and his staff, who will most certainly come under attack as a result of his stories. What comes across as potently as the blue smoke from his constantly-lit cigarette is Murrow's commitment to truth and his desire to relate that truth in a compelling way to his audiences.
Murrow quit broadcasting long before I was old enough to care about the news. But Clooney's approach to the film seemed, if I may borrow a phrase Clooney might not appreciate, as "fair and balanced" as anyone could expect from a drama. This isn't the news – it's a movie. It needs good guys and bad guys and a plot to drive it forward. Edward R. Murrow is depicted as a person devoted to truth – with the guts necessary to back it up. Clooney shows Murrow seeing injustice and being incensed enough to do something about it. He rallies a nation to do what is right, even if it is costly. All things considered – a great message for budding journalists and truth-tellers everywhere.
Marc T. Newman, PhD (email@example.com) is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.
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