Good Night, and Good Luck and bad history.

Media criticism.
Oct. 5 2005 7:29 PM

Edward R. Movie

Good Night, and Good Luck and bad history.

Note: This is the first of a two-part article. For Part 2, click here.

David Strathairn does his best Gary Cooper as Edward R. Murrow
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David Strathairn does his best Gary Cooper as Edward R. Murrow

If Jesus Christ no longer satisfies your desire to worship a man as god, I suggest you buy a ticket for Good Night, and Good Luck, the new movie about legendary CBS News broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Good Night, and Good Luck's Murrow burns cigarettes like altar incense. He speaks in a resonant, godly rumble. And he plods through the greatest story ever told about the hunting of communist hunter Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy like a man carrying all the world's sins.

Of course, Murrow was no god. Point of fact, he shouldn't be regarded as the patron saint of broadcast news his fans, among them Good Night, and Good Luck director George Clooney, make him out to be. But the passage of time, the self-serving testimonials from the broadcasters he recruited to CBS ("Murrow's Boys"), and the usual nostalgia for newsrooms choking on their own cigarette smoke have puffed the considerable accomplishments of a mortal and flawed newsman into modern miracles. Good Night, and Good Luck, a docudrama that pits Murrow against McCarthy, escalates the veneration to heavenly levels.

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A terrific movie about the Murrow-McCarthy duel could be made, mind you, but Clooney and company ignore the material that might argue against their simple-minded thesis about Murrow, the era, and the press to produce an after-school special. It's a shame, too, because Good Night, and Good Luck's unbeatable production values and sharp performances constitute key ingredients of a great historical drama. Plus, Clooney is an able director, artfully meshing the original documentary film footage from Murrow's weekly CBS series, See It Now, with recreations of the studio end of the broadcasts.

But it all goes wrong with the naive screenplay, written by Clooney and his collaborator, fellow actor/producer Grant Heslov. Plowing through the Murrow and McCarthy literature after viewing the film, I was impressed at how deeply Clooney and Heslov researched the topic yet dismayed at how they cherry-picked material to compose their sermon.

The film covers the five-month period from late 1953 to early 1954 during which Murrow combated the McCarthy-inspired hysteria over communist subversives with a quartet of programs on his weekly CBS series See It Now. The Venona transcripts have shown definitively that American communists and Soviet sympathizers, such as Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg, did gather information for Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet for all his thuggery and congressional hearing grandstanding, hounding a suspected red dentist who got an Army promotion or a Pentagon clerk suspected of Communist Party membership, McCarthy bagged not a single commie spy.

Good Night, and Good Luck never comes out and credits Murrow with single-handedly slaying McCarthy on March 9, 1954, with his famous See It Now program, "A Report on Joseph R. McCarthy." But if you want to form that impression, the moviemakers won't mind. David Strathairn plays Murrow as if he's Gary Cooper in High Noon, an unblinking stoic facing down and defeating evil with solitary courage.

In reality, McCarthy's takedown was much more complex. As the Weekly Standard'sAndrew Ferguson wrote in 1996, "McCarthy had been hanging himself quite efficiently in the several months before Murrow offered him more rope." Ferguson continues:

By the time the [March 9, 1954] show aired, a mutiny was underway on his own subcommittee to relieve McCarthy as chairman. Prominent Republicans had joined Democrats in publicly denouncing him, even, gingerly, his former comrade Vice President Richard Nixon. In the mainstream press, anti-McCarthy feeling was endemic. Among those routinely critical were Time magazine and Col. Robert McCormick's Chicago Tribune. If Col. McCormick and Henry Luce were denouncing a right-wing icon, you could feel pretty safe in firing away.

But don't take Ferguson's word for it. The McCarthy program "came very late in the day," said one of Murrow's brightest "boys," Eric Sevareid, in a January 1978 broadcast.  "The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy," Sevareid said, "and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late." Sevareid named Elmer Davis and Martin Agronsky as two broadcasters who had taken on McCarthy long before Murrow.

But don't take Sevareid's word for it, either. Listen to Murrow. Jack Gould, the New York Times television columnist whose Murrow praise is read aloud in the movie, took lunch with Murrow shortly after the McCarthy program. Murrow confessed his tardiness in taking on McCarthy, according to an interview Gould gave to Edwin R. Bayley for his 1981 book, Joe McCarthy and the Press. "My God," he recalls Murrow saying. "I didn't do anything. [Times columnist] Scotty Reston and lot of guys have been writing like this, saying the same things, for months, for years. We're bringing up the rear."