U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was probably the closest thing to a fascist demagogue this country has ever seen. Nicknamed “Tailgunner Joe” despite the fact that he never flew in combat before, during or after World War II, the Republican McCarthy represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate for much of the 1950’s. During those years, McCarthy charged without a shred of evidence that the U.S. State Department and U.S. Army were thoroughly infiltrated by communists and accused Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and General of the Army George C. Marshall of being “traitors.” He chaired star chamber-like Senate hearings where he bulied berated rows of citizens on live television. Surveying the madness, CBS News reporter Edward R. Murrow called it an “age of unreason.”
Murrow came late to the fight against McCarthy, waiting until 1954 to expose the alcoholic Senator on his program See It Now as a rambling, irresponsible thug. The fact that others—including Republican officials in the Eisenhower Administration—had been going after McCarthy for years is and isn’t important to understand George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck. Those seeking a rigorous treatment of the very public fight between Murrow—whose London Blitz broadcasts during World War II earned him legendary status as a newsman—and the red-baiting Senator will be disappointed. Clooney cut a lot of corners and made Murrow seem a lot more heroic than he ever was.
Still, Clooney made a movie, not a historical analysis. And it’s a fascinating one at that. Shot in black and white both for dramatic purposes and to make it possible to weave actual McCarthy footage into the movie (screening audiences reportedly complimented Clooney on the “actor” he hired to play McCarthy), Clooney’s picture shows reporters in action better than any film since All The President’s Men.
We see Murrow (David Strathairn) at his anchor desk, the air thick with cigarette smoke as he prepares to go on the air, while his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) sits his feet during the broadcast, tapping Murrow’s leg when the cameras start rolling. And a thick sense of dread fills the screen as Clooney’s Friendly and Strathairn’s Murrow wait to see CBS boss William Paley (Frank Langella). No reporter—even one with Murrow’s credentials—enjoys talking to corporate about news budgets, and Clooney brings real tension to the scenes with Paley.
It’s too bad the subplot involving CBS News employees played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson seemed tacked on. By contrast, I had many questions about CBS anchor Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise) whose appearances in the film are far too fleeting.
McCarthy drank himself to death in 1957, a bitter wreck of a man who lost complete control of his judgment a decade earlier. But his Age of Unreason seems with us once again. In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Lynn Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, compiled a McCarthy-like list of college professors she thought “soft” on terror. Since then we’ve learned of secret prisons, torturing suspects and continuing calls for increased domestic surveillance.
Clooney obviously intended his film as a warning that McCarthy’s ghost still walks among us. In that, he’s wildly succeeded.
Good Night, and Good Luck screens as part of the First Light Film Festival on Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 5 p.m. at the Castle Theater. MTW