Political Film Society - Newsletter #236 -October 15, 2005
 



October 15, 2005


 

TWO FILMS DEPICT VERY DIFFERENT RESPONSES TO THE POLITICS OF ACCUSATION
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

The War WithinThe War Within, directed by Joseph Costelo, attempts to explain the psychology of Moslem suicide bombers after 9/11. When the film begins, a Pakistani engineering student, Hassan (played by Ayad Akhtar), is abducted by the CIA on a street in the Latin Quarter of Paris. He is drugged and flown to Pakistan, where he is interrogated and tortured; flashbacks of his torture reappear as nightmares later in the film. Evidently his brother, who was living in Lahore, protested the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 but was shot dead. The CIA believes that Hassan must know about a terrorist cell, but he has no such knowledge. While incarcerated, he is befriended by an Algerian terrorist who is a member of The Brotherhood. Presumably, Hassan is released from detention at some point and joins The Brotherhood, as the title "Three Years Later" appears between the detention scene and a view of the port of New York as containers are unloaded. A stowaway in a container, he is released by bearded men and informed of arrangements that will lead up to his mission. However, he has a physician friend in Jersey City, Sayeed (played by Firdous Bamji), an Americanized Muslim whom he visits. Telling them that he has a job opportunity, his friend allows him to stay at their house along with his wife, Farida (played by Sarita Choudhury), his young son, Ali (played by Varun Sriram), and his sister, Duri (played by Nandana Sen), who is Hassan's age. One day, he takes a bus to a warehouse where the bombmaking is taking place in preparation for a major terrorist attack, but the CIA and police have already discovered the site and are arresting all those present. Hassan now awaits new orders, which indicate a Dallas venue, but he prefers to make his own bombs secretly in the basement of Sayeed's house and to set off a suicide bomb in Grand Central Station. The only one who knows that he is doing something secretly is Ali, who is so puzzled that he asks Hassan to explain. The explanation is a metaphor. He asks Ali to imagine that one day the neighbors decide to take over the house where he lives and tell them to stay in the back yard, and another day the neighbors find oil in the yard and kick them out entirely, making them homeless. Saying that such events are happening all over the world, Hassan asks Ali what he would do if that fate were to apply to his own family and house. Ali replies that he would fight, so Hassan has indeed made his point. Although Ali is confused about the metaphor, Hassan teaches him how to pray to Allah, suggesting that yet another potential suicide bomber has been groomed. In any case, one evening Duri finds the bombmaking equipment in the basement and cries out. Sayeed goes to the basement, there is a struggle, Hassan knocks him down and escapes, bound for Grand Central Station. Sayeed then summons the police to report the illegal activity, but they are more interested in arresting him than in tracking down Hassan. In the end of the film, filmviewers learn whether Hassan will indeed become a suicide bomber at the train station, but not before understanding more fully the familiar words of a sign, evidently billboarded in Times Square, to make democracy the example, not war. In The Terrorist (2000), the suicide bomber is a poor Tamil girls from Sri Lanka who is in effect sold by her family members to a terrorist training camp because they cannot afford to pay for her education or even her marriage. The War Within, in contrast, provides a cinematic example of what many observers have been predicting: That overzealous methods by American officials are increasing, not decreasing, terrorism. Although the story is fictional, news reports earlier in 2005 indicate that several CIA agents in Italy, without the authorization of Rome, kidnapped individuals, one of whom was taken to Egypt and tortured to obtain information that he did not possess. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated The War Within for best film on human rights of 2005. MH