Good Night, And Good Luck tells the story of how campaigning television journalism was used with devastating effect against senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunts in the US in the early 1950s. The film centres around Edward Murrow (played by David Strathairn), who worked for the CBS broadcasting company. He was well respected by the US public for his London-based radio reports during the Second World War, and then as presenter of a news and current affairs radio programme called Hear It Now. He took the show to television in 1951, and renamed it See It Now. Murrow closed every programme with, ‘Good night, and good luck.’
In 1953, the See It Now team came across the story of lieutenant Milo Radulovich, a working class reservist who was being discharged from the air force as a security risk, due to the allegation that his father and sister were Communist sympathisers. Murrow and his team decided to use the case of Radulovich to expose what McCarthy was doing. Their campaign led to Radulovich’s reinstatement.
David Strathairn is brilliant as Murrow. He not only captures his mannerisms and look, but also the sense that Murrow felt a higher purpose about what he was doing – that television was not just there to entertain.
There is a very strong cast, including the film’s director, George Clooney, as See It Now‘s producer, Fred Friendly, who is Murrow’s ally against the station bosses. Frank Langella plays CBS boss William Paley, who sees the programme’s popularity, but is worried that he will lose the advertising sponsors.
The film is shot in black and white, and the combination of this with contemporary footage of some of the participants in the story works brilliantly. The real McCarthy is shown in old footage, including from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings where he tried to destroy people for supposed Communist affiliations. His reply to Murrow’s broadcast which appeared on See It Now, is full of the vitriol and red-baiting he was so famous for.
Despite McCarthy’s slurs against him, Murrow wasn’t particularly radical. He was a liberal who thought that McCarthy’s methods weren’t the best way to undermine Communism in the US. The fact that he was appointed to the US Information Agency by President Kennedy in 1961 should make it clear that he wasn’t an enemy of the powerful. Several broadcasters took on McCarthy well before Murrow and the See It Now team, when he was much more powerful and it was far more dangerous to do so.
The film is bracketed by a speech Murrow made to the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention in 1958. ‘This just might do nobody any good,’ he begins, going on to say that television is ‘being used to detract, delude, amuse and insulate us’. The speech made Murrow few friends in the industry, but what he was talking about was all too clear even then. See It Now had already been downgraded in the schedules, and was finally taken off the air in the same year he made the speech.
In making a film about the dark period of McCarthyism, George Clooney has also made a film about the current climate in the US media around the ‘war on terror’, where the corporate news media follow Bush’s agenda. The need for an alternative has even led the film’s makers to set up a website, www.report-it-now.com, encouraging people to tell stories from their communities and put pressure on the media.
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