Good Night, and Good Luck and bad history.

Media criticism.
Oct. 5 2005 7:28 PM

Edward R. Movie

Good Night, and Good Luck and bad history.

Note: This is the second part of a two-part article. To return to Part 1, click here.

(Continued from Page 1)

Good Night, and Good Luck's heaviest Hollywood airbrushing comes in its treatment of the See It Now program about Annie Lee Moss ("Senator McCarthy Against Annie Lee Moss," March 16, 1954). In committee hearings McCarthy accused Moss, a matronly Pentagon Signal Corps employee, of being a member of the Communist party based on the word of an FBI informant. Her job in a Pentagon code room, in McCarthy's mind, makes her a communist spy. See It Now's newsreel footage of the hearing makes her seem the simple-minded victim of mistaken identity by a inquisitional monster as she denies party membership. McCarthy correctly senses that things are going badly for his side and departs from the hearing, leaving his counsel Roy Cohn holding the bag. As other senators on the panel proceed to hector Cohn and coddle Moss, the hearing turns into a disaster for McCarthy.

How innocent was Moss? In Salon, Clooney says the issue for Murrow is Moss' right to face her accuser, which she was denied. For the record, however, McCarthy appears to have been more right than wrong about her membership.

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In 1958, the federal Subversive Activities Control Board reported that "the Communist Party's own records, the authenticity of which the Party has at no time disputed … show that one Annie Lee Moss, 72 R Street SW, Washington DC, was a party member in the mid-1940s." Joseph E. Persico's 1988 biography, Edward R. Murrow: An American Original, reports this finding as does historian Arthur Herman's 1999 revisionist account, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator.

Now, just because Moss was in the party doesn't make her a traitor, as McCarthy would have it, although it would make her a perjurer. If Clooney has researched the story as deeply as I believe he has, he knows of the evidence against Moss and has chosen to ignore it to make his story as black and white as its film stock. Likewise, in the Radulovich program, Murrow made no effort to explore whether the reservist might be a security threat if his family members are. But is it journalism when the only question asked by a reporter is whether a beleaguered citizen is receiving due process? In a recent review of the Murrow DVD set, Miami Herald TV critic Glenn Garvin posed the question this way: "Would we be comfortable these days with an Air Force officer with a security clearance whose father belonged to al Qaeda?"

Rereading the Murrow-McCarthy literature, I began to imagine a dark comedy about the Red Scare based on the broadcaster's life, something in the vein of Clooney's compelling 2002 flop, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, or Dr. Strangelove. Just last month, Clooney despaired to the Wall Street Journal about the difficulty of marketing the movie: Only half of the audiences at June test-screenings knew about the witch hunts and, he said, "literally no one knew" who Murrow was. Consider the fabulous unused historical material.

Instead of a black-and-white docudrama, what if Clooney had exploited the humor in McCarthy's manic-depressive cycles, his crazed periods of insomnia, and his battles with the bottle? Play Roy Cohn's closeted homosexuality for laughs, too, and enlist McCarthy's good friends from the Kennedy clan—patriarch Joseph P. and Bobby.

In a montage sequence, he could have established Murrow's early success at myth-building. In his teen years, Murrow made his first and wisest show-biz move by abandoning his given cracker name, Egbert Roscoe Murrow, for the more sonorous Edward R. Murrow. Upon applying for a CBS job at the age of 27, he added five years to his age, inflated his speech major at Washington State University into a major in political science and international relations, and falsely claimed to have attended classes at the University of Washington and earned an M.A. from Stanford University. The lies continued once he established himself as a broadcaster in England. Scribner's Magazine was led to believe in a profile that Murrow had worked two years as a compassman in British Columbia and Alaska—both untrue, writes biographer Persico. Shades of Chuck Barris!

I imagine a madcap scene—rooted in fact—that explains how Murrow and CBS were able to hand out a point-by-point rebuttal of McCarthy's rebuttal right after airing it while honestly saying he hadn't seen it before noon that day. Somebody close to the post-production of McCarthy's film sold the Murrow team an audio dub of Joe's film for $100 a couple of days before it broadcast. Sounds like something out of The Front Page, doesn't it?

The film—call it Confessions of a Dangerous Smoker—could flash forward to 1956 to document Murrow's intense partisanship. He secretly tutored the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, on how to speak to the camera effectively. The lesson failed, writes Jean H. Baker in The Stevensons: A Biography of an American Family, as Adlai had no patience for performance. Or watch Murrow offer a deaf and spent Winston Churchill $100,000 for a series of interviews. The material is that rich.

But Clooney is too blinded by his love for Murrow to think his way through his hero's inconsistent relationship with the medium: Murrow both chased hard news and whipped up celebrity fluff on Person to Person, his interview program from the same period. If we're going to praise Murrow for producing fearless TV news, we should also be ready to damn him for paving the way for Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, and all the celebrity bootlickers on red carpets. Instead of grappling with the Murrow paradox, Clooney bookends the movie with the broadcaster's sanctimonious 1958 speech about television's lost promise.

If I judge it correctly, Good Night, and Good Luck intends to serve as a parable for our times and not a history lesson. Its makers want us to find contemporary "resonance" in the film and conclude that, compared to the giants of 1954, modern journalists have been cowed by those in political power. What a facile, Hollywood cliché. Journalism has improved vastly since 1954, certainly eclipsing the likes of Edward R. Murrow's overrated TV output, and today's reporters are more independent and willing to confront presidential administrations and powerful political figures than Murrow and his boys ever were.

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