Political Film Society - Good Night, and Good Luck


PFS Film Review
Good Night, and Good Luck


 

Good Night, and Good LuckAnti-Communist crusader Senator Joseph McCarthy rose to prominence in the early 1950s with the accusation that some 200 Communist Party members were employed in the United States government, though he never presented evidence or names. When attacked for his methods of badgering witnesses, making false statements, and promoting hysteria, he responded that his attackers were allied with international communism. So who brought down McCarthy? A popular impression at the time was that Boston attorney Joseph Welch did so by asking during a Congressional investigation whether McCarthy exercised influence on the army to obtain favorable treatment for his associate G. David Schein, "Have you no decency?" However, Good Night, and Good Luck, directed by George Clooney, corrects that impression, crediting Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) as the first to have the courage to expose the hysteria and the tactics of the late senator in his weekly news program that ended with the words, "Good night, and good luck." During the 1950s, while McCarthy was at his apogee, Murrow was a well-trusted interviewer, cigarette in hand. In person-to-person, he went into the homes of celebrities for interviews, and the film indeed amuses by replaying a segment of the tape of an interview with Liberace in which he is asked when he planned to marry and settle down. However, Murrow also used the television medium to report news stories that exposed injustice. The particular news story that first enables him to expose McCarthyism involves the fate of a Lt. Milo Radulovich, a Serbian-American pilot who has been discharged from the military on sealed charges that his attorney was not allowed to see shortly after he refused to denounce his father for reading a publication in Serbian. The former soldier is quoted as saying on the Murrow show that he could not allow the government to tell him to denounce his own father, nor could he permit the government to place his son in the same position, as there would be no end to the practice. Before reporting the story on television, Murrow acknowledges that he is not only getting at McCarthyism without attacking McCarthy but also making sure that the anti-Communist hysteria does not come into the newsroom to deter the exercise of freedom of the press. Two colonels try to dissuade his producer, Fred Friendly (played by the director), from running the story, but their very effort at intimidation proves counterproductive, and the segment runs. When McCarthy attacks his piece, Murrow decides to make a frontal attack on McCarthy, while inviting him to respond in equal time. McCarthy swallows the bait, responds on April 15, 1953, with smear tactics, and Murrow points out that McCarthy is a liar during the following program. However, Ed Hollenbeck (played by Ray Wise), one of Murrow's news team was once married to a woman who had a tainted background; although Hollenbeck resigns from Murrow's team, McCarthy launches his "guilt by association" attack, and Hollenbeck commits suicide. Murrow's courageous effort to bring down McCarthy provokes Alcoa to stop sponsoring his weekly show, and ratings indeed slip so far that CBS CEO William Paley (played by Frank Langelia), who never interferes with the content of Murrow's programs, responds to financial reality by allotting him only five more shows--and switching him from prime time to Sunday afternoon. The film begins and ends with a speech by Murrow on October 25, 1958, when he accepts an award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In the speech, he notes that television has the potential to produce a fully-informed citizenry but instead has sold out to corporate sponsors that prefer programs "to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate." Good Night, and Good Luck is in black and white, uses tapes from the past, including a cowardly quote from Eisenhower that condemned McCarthy (but not by name) after he was already down. The movie seems very relevant to events of the twenty-first century, when detainees are being held in various locations without the benefit of counsel, the press prefers to cozy up to political authorities in Washington rather than taking a critical stance, and television entertains with sleaze as well as trivialities. For a window into the past from which to view the present, especially Murrow's comment, "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home," the Political Film Society has nominated Good Night, and Good Luck for an award as best film exposé of 2005. MH

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