Smackdown: Edward R. Murrow v. Joe McCarthy

Over the weekend, I finally watched George Clooney's new film Good Night. And, Good Luck. Well made and so fitting today, I recommend the movie whole-heartedly. Since I wrote the following, for the Walker Film/Video blog over a month ago, the film has gone on to take major prizes, including best actor and best screenplay at Venice. See it.

When Edward R. Murrow spoke into the camera the evening of May 9, 1954, he was really speaking to Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator who zealously sought to root out suspected Communists in Hollywood, government, and across the country:
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of the Republic to abdicate his responsibility.
Whoa. Trade suspects—commies for terrorists—and his words seem apropos in our age of color-coded threat levels, feds snooping through library records, and indefinite detention of Muslim men. Screening today at the 62nd Venice Film Festival, a new film by George Clooney tackles this history, not through the broad lens of American culture but through the specific case of CBS, where a wicked battle preceded Murrow's on-air spanking of McCarthy, one that exposed how fear gets internalized, even in an objective news operation. Clooney, who directed, co-wrote, and co-starred in this second directorial effort, Good Night. And, Good Luck., insisted at a press conference today that the film wasn't a critique of current policies. "My goal is not to attack any administration, my goal is to raise a debate," he said. "I didn't make the film as a political statement, I made the film as a historical reference." What the debate is about may be political, but more likely it's about the media, a topic completely germane to times when media companies are sponsoring patriotic rallies, banning playlists that mention peace, and requiring its TV anchors to read pro-Bush statements on the air.

Despite this timeliness, Clooney stays true to the story and the era, so much so that he shot the film in black-and white, editing in documentary footage of McCarthy and testimony from the trial of suspected Communist Milo Radulovich. This kind of attention seems to spring from Clooney's admiration for Murrow. He says:
All my life, I have been fascinated with what are probably the great three moments in American journalism: Murrow taking on McCarthy; Walter Cronkite stepping from behind his desk (something he had never done before), pointing to the map of Vietnam and saying, 'This is a mistake'; Woodward and Bernstein exposing Watergate.... Murrow is what we don't have now. That one voice that everyone listens to. We knew that he wasn't a communist, as McCarthy accused him of being. He'd been reporting from the Blitz, telling us the explosions looked like puffs of white rice on black velvet; we trusted him.
Which shoots me right back, yet again, to the present: thanks to Rathergate, Armstrong Williams, that Plame-outing Robert Novak, and partisan shouters Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, media voices we can trust are, woefully, few and far between.

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