The cultural critic Neil Postman not only echoed and furthered Murrow’s concerns in his landmark 1985 jeremiad Amusing Ourselves to Death, but also commented on them precisely if indirectly. “The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public’s indifference,” Postman wrote. “There is an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much, or cares.” All of which is the disheartening subtext of George Clooney’s sharp second feature, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
On the surface we have a sleek and inspiring tale of one brave reporter and his news show standing up to the political tidal wave that was Joseph McCarthy’s communist purge. Clooney’s father toiled as an itinerant Midwestern anchorman for decades, and there is little doubt that the director has great affection for his subject. Shot lovingly in black and white, the film evokes a more innocent era—the smooth jazz and bittersweet gospel, the dark suits and wide ties, the ubiquitous cigarettes—the better to foster an aura of Soviet paranoia, abetted by the ghoulish visage of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, human shorthand for overwrought witch hunts.
We first see him in 1953 newsreel footage, red-faced and punching his hands through the air in front of him as a curl of inky hair waves from his pasty forehead. The specter of Communism is on the march, McCarthy warns, or something to that affect, and one notes how the intervening years have lent the junior senator from
Then Murrow stepped into the breach. Heroic in his own right as a result of brave reporting from the firebombing of
Indeed, the story, which initiated a backlash against McCarthy, angled the “See It Now” boat towards not only the shark-infested waters of the
Appearing on “See It Now” to defend himself in April 1954, McCarthy slung dubious accusations and lurid insults at Murrow: “he is a symbol, a leader of the jackal pack, a communist supporter since 1934,” ad infinitum. The appearance did him little good. By the end of the film McCarthy is indicted and his reign of terror ended—at one point we see attorney Joseph Welch posing the immortal questions to McCarthy regarding his decency and shame, at long last—and Murrow and Friendly are rightly lauded.
Yet the obvious lesson is that television brooks no dissent, not of its own M.O., at least; what goes on the tube must be Aldous Huxley’s soma, mindless and soothing, or face banishment. To see the indignity of Murrow distractedly quizzing Liberace about the singer’s marital plans is to witness the destructive power of television, effortlessly muzzling the reporting drive of such a determined and headstrong man. Murrow appeared bowed if unbroken at the Radio-Television News Directors Assocation ceremony, which bookends Clooney’s film, when he damned the entire television industry, himself included. “We shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced.”
One of the first conservatives to speak out against McCarthy in the 1950’s was the historian and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Peter Vierick, who spoke recently of man’s responsibility in the world. “I can think of nothing more gallant, even though again and again we fail, than attempting to get at the facts; attempting to tell things as they really are.” Clooney’s film presents Murrow as a truth seeker and an impressively gallant figure. He uses television to unmask and defeat McCarthy, a great American fraud; he is journalist as knight. But television brings him low in the end, and when finally the story prods us to look around for gallantry today, we are left wanting.