Good Night, and Good Luck
Produced and distributed by Warner Independent and Redbus Pictures
Directed by George Clooney
Screenplay by Grant Heslov

With all that has been revealed since the Soviet archives were opened to scrutiny in the 1990’s, does anyone still believe that Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy was hunting witches where there was no coven?  That there were no communists, or, at least, none that did any harm, in the State Department from the 1930’s to the 1940’s?  That Alger Hiss was just a bleeding-heart naif who stumbled into the 1945 Yalta Conference and accidentally consigned Eastern Europe to Soviet domination?  Even the leftists at the Nation have apostatized from these articles of their former faith.  George Clooney, however, continues to embrace the hallowed creed with all the fervor of a true believer.

Watching Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, you are led to believe that the Soviet threat was merely a fever dream of McCarthy, a boorish self-promoter from the boondocks trying to cow the nation into conformity with his fascist vision of patriotism.  To take down this Goliath of America’s greater booboisie, Clooney casts his David in the person of CBS newscaster cum editorialist Edward R. Murrow.

Clooney is a good actor and seems not unintelligent, but this twaddle cannot be allowed to stand.  Before dashing his fantasy on some inconvenient facts, however, I want to point out that, behind his left-liberal slant, there seems to be a surprisingly conservative impulse—filial devotion.  Clooney’s father, Nick, is a retired anchorman, as newsreaders are unfortunately called in this country, and, like others in his trade, the old man reveres Murrow for making his profession seem respectable.  In presenting Murrow as McCarthy’s slayer, Clooney is clearly paying homage to his father.  Filial devotion, however, does not excuse tampering with the truth.

Murrow presents the first difficulty in Clooney’s propaganda.  As played by David Strathairn, he is a dour loner who keeps a discreet distance from others, the better to hug his inviolable integrity.  In one scene, his staff members—“Murrow’s boys,” as they were called—argue with one another over what should lead in the nightly news report, while Murrow sits apart from them, coolly regarding their passion.  This saint of broadcasting will not be compromised by raw emotion.  If Murrow believed himself to be this earnestly dispassionate, he was fooling himself.  During World War II, he became famous for his rooftop radio broadcasts of German air raids over London.  This was daring and dramatic but hardly a high-water mark of journalistic impartiality.  By making himself part of the story, Murrow sacrificed any claim to objectivity and unwittingly begot a long line of puffed-up news broadcasters who insist on making themselves the center of whatever they report.  Today, Sean Hannity, Al Franken, and, ironically, Clooney’s bête noir, Bill O’Reilly, are all Murrow’s bastard offspring.  Murrow could fairly be said to be the least offensive in this cadre of pomp, but he was nevertheless its pioneer and, as such, bears the blame for the carnival-barker school of journalism that prevails today.  He made it possible for self-important newsreaders to think of themselves as anointed defenders of America.

In 1954, Murrow decided to take on McCarthy.  As chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, McCarthy had garnered a national following for his attacks on communist influence at the State Department.  As a result, he had been declared a menace by many high-minded commentators, and the left’s troops were gathering to attack.  On his See It Now news show, Murrow joined the assault with carefully edited clips from McCarthy’s hearings that put the senator in the worst light possible.  Murrow then sententiously concluded that “this is not the time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy to keep silent.”  At the beginning of the show, Murrow, in what appeared to be a spirit of gentlemanly fair play, urbanely offered the senator equal time, should he want to respond to his criticism.  Murrow was counting on McCarthy to rise to this bait.

Strathairn plays Murrow’s attack on McCarthy as an exercise in calm, eloquent understatement, the kind of evaluation a well-educated, well-informed gentleman might make in your living room during a particularly sober cocktail party.  It is a performance perfectly adapted to the intimacy of television.  Following this, we watch McCarthy’s response from the original kinescope recordings.  Few public figures have been as ill suited to the cool medium of television.  He appears to seethe and fume with a fury weirdly disproportionate to the occasion.  His thickset, heavy-gutted body and beard-shadowed chin make him appear gangsterish.  He recklessly denounces Murrow as “the leader of and cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors.”  His voice plaintive and petulant, he then marshals some half-understood facts provided by the FBI.  One such “fact” tells of the young Murrow briefly working in an Oregon lumber camp, rubbing shoulders with loggers, many of whom had been members of the International Workers of the World.  It follows, McCarthy declares, that Murrow was a Wobbly, a member of “a terrorist group.”  Even if this and his other charges had been true—which they were not—the television audience would have been on Murrow’s side.  Television’s small screen paradoxically amplified McCarthy’s aggressive go-for-the-jugular courtroom manner, making him look like a bully rather than a legal warrior engaging in a good fight and assuming that truth would emerge after the dust had settled.  (It is telling that McCarthy should accuse Murrow of his own inclination.)  Murrow, on the other hand, appears reasonable and reliable, a man reluctantly performing an unpleasant but necessary job.  In a medium that favors the aura, if not the reality, of informality and sincerity, there was no contest.

Within a few weeks of his appearance on Murrow’s show, McCarthy found himself under investigation.  In 1953, he had uncovered a bureaucratic snafu that had embarrassed the Army.  An enlisted dentist had been promoted from captain to major despite having been discovered promulgating communist propaganda among the troops.  The Army wanted to teach the senator a lesson–—and they did.  The hearings were televised in their entirety, and, as charge and countercharge were hurled, McCarthy appeared even worse than he had on Murrow’s show.  His anticommunist crusade was coming to a close.

Clooney has gotten all this into his movie, skillfully but selectively.  He edits tendentiously to give us the preferred McCarthy, the one many Americans think they know.  Curiously, he gives the game away when he recreates Murrow’s use of footage from the McCarthy hearings.  He shows us Murrow and his staff choosing an episode in which McCarthy committed one of his worst blunders.  They then deliberately select shots that make the senator seem brutally insensitive.

On information supplied by J. Edgar Hoover, McCarthy subpoenaed a middle-aged black woman named Annie Lee Moss to appear before his committee.  Moss sits in her chair, hunched over her microphone, looking frightened and bewildered.  Wearing an inexpensive cloth coat and thick glasses, she looks to be as much a spy as Ethel Waters in character as Beulah.  McCarthy tactlessly explains to her and the room at large that she is being questioned not because she herself is important but because of her position in the Pentagon.  He has it on good authority, he informs her, that she has been identified as a member of the Communist Party.  Accordingly, he wants to know “why you were shifted from the cafeteria to the code room,” from which classified information is disseminated to officers and agents around the world.  Having clarified his purpose, he stands up and lamely excuses himself from the proceedings, saying that he has an important appointment to keep.  In his absence, his counsel, the ferret-like Roy Cohn, does his dirty work.  As Cohn badgers Moss, Sen. Stuart Symington interrupts and asks the lady if she is familiar with Karl Marx.  “Who’s he?” she asks perplexedly.  With the notable exception of Cohn, the room bursts into laughter.  Clooney has obviously chosen this sequence to be his coup de grâce.  There can no longer be any doubt.  McCarthy was a bully who irresponsibly battered the helpless with unfounded charges of communist conspiracy—and he had to be stopped.  McCarthy was roundly ridiculed for this seeming persecution of a defenseless woman.  A few weeks afterward, Moss was allowed to resume her job at the Pentagon.  But Clooney withholds crucial information.   Four years later, the Subversive Activities Control Board reported that Moss was indeed a card-carrying member of the CPUSA, substantiated by the Communist Party’s own records.  Of course, Moss’s membership was not necessarily sinister.  To many Americans growing up in the 1930’s, communism had seemed a sane alternative to the reckless capitalism that had led to the Great Depression.  The siren call of the classless society must have been especially seductive to economically disenfranchised blacks.  Still, would any sane person in 1954 entrust a member of the Communist Party, however personally harmless, with wiring coded secrets overseas?  Despite her Communist Party membership, Moss had a perfect right to gainful employment, as long as it was not at the Pentagon.  If only McCarthy had been able and disposed to make such distinctions, he might have achieved his goals, identifying communism as a menace among some adherents and merely a foolish utopianism among others.

Although disingenuous—or, perhaps, willingly credulous—Clooney’s film does contain the seed of a good movie.  Ironically, it is provided by Murrow himself, when he gave a press conference to answer McCarthy’s personal attack on him.  “When the record is finally written,” he reflected in his gravest and most confused manner, “as it will be one day, it will answer the question, who has helped the Communist cause and who has served his country better, Senator McCarthy or I?  I would like to be remembered by the answer to the question.”  This is pure Murrow, placing himself at the center of the story with magisterial poise, seemingly unaware that he has betrayed his reporter’s neutrality in doing so.  Putting aside his hunger for the spotlight, it has to be admitted he got one thing right.  The real story about McCarthy is how his  ambition and reckless methods undermined the anticommunist cause.  By oversimplifying the issue, he made it difficult, if not impossible, for people on both the left and the right to attack communist influence convincingly.  Doing so inevitably brought down the dreaded charge of McCarthyism that undermined one’s credibility.  It is all just another tragical-historical-comical drama in the annals of our entertainingly wayward nation.

And just in case you’re wondering, Clooney neglects to mention that Jack and Bobby Kennedy supported McCarthy throughout his career and after his untimely death at age 49.  Bobby had worked on his staff, and McCarthy had stood as godfather to one of his children.  I suppose Clooney thought such facts might obscure his higher truth.  €