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March 15, 2006

Good Night and Good Luck claims to be a film about the good that TV can do, yet it does no better than Hollywood and TV usually does: Good Night and Good Luck - George Clooney

Posted by Richard D. North

Good Night and Good Luck
Directed by George Clooney
certificate PG, 2005

The good news is that Good Night and Good Luck (GN&GL) is entirely watchable. It is a homage to the film styles of the day: as noir as news footage, smokier than a gangster movie. You don't notice the transition between original material and Clooney's. It also tells quite an interesting story. The qualification is necessary, though. After all, we already knew that McCarthy was a toe-rag and that he was rumbled in the end and died soon after. Tell us something we don't know.

We would be bound to be quite interested in a documentary on this subject. We sort of get one, and it's flawed. We don't really get a drama, though. No-one grows or changes. There are no major crises. There is a minor one, more an anti-climax than anything else, involving a journo played by Robert Downey Jnr – who is taking a break from being his irreverent best, for instance in the brilliant Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005).

There were a couple of Front Page moments. One has a editorial team being sent off into their quiet day with the injunction: "Go rob a granny", or some such. Hard-bitten cynicism is necessary to the journalistic identikit. And there is a decently poignant moment as Ed Murrow is ungracious when his producer (Clooney, efficient as Fred Friendly) proffers his Zippo:

Whenever you light my cigarette, I know you're lying to me.
We can guess that Clooney wanted to make a loving account of Murrow partly because he has an actor's admiration for the real world of "inkies". Apparently, George's own father was a news anchor, so this may also be a filial duty – and thus rather attractive. Odd, then, to present Murrow as a sort of speak-your-weight machine crossed with God. Anyway, George's DNA ought to be telling him that journalism is very seldom any good if it is not counter-intuitive. This film is wholly predictable in who it likes and who it hates. It tells a well-worn story and does so with all the right-on bias of a school essay.

Because it's an attempt to be serious about journalism, this film has to be judged as journalism. Besides, it is tied-in with an attempt to reform the US media - as witness the pages of participate.net, the campaigning website run by Participant Films, Clooney's film company, which made GN&GL. And the clincher is that it purports to be about standards in broadcasting - so we can judge it as to its own standards of courage, seriousness and accuracy.

We cannot, by the way, merely bow down to Clooney's being good enough to work for less money than usual. He can't expect to get his rocks off with intellectuals and take home paydirt. This work is made no better by having overtones of vanity publishing.

Let's list the failures.

1) The film implies that Ed Murrow's broadcasts brought down McCarthy - though to be fair we do hear the litany of newspaper writing which had already broken the ground. Insofar as CBS was cautious, it was within its rights to be granted that TV did not enjoy the same legal protection as newsprint.

2) The film implies that CBS sidelined Ed Murrow's news show immediately after his McCarthy broadcasts - but actually the show stayed in its original slot for another year.

3) We do not hear from the film that Ed Murrow himself thought his most famous McCarthy show was not especially good journalism.

4) We nowhere hear that the black female clerk we see interrogated by McCarthy and his committee actually had been a communist and lied about that.

Perhaps these faults are minor. We may say that any victim of McCarthy is entitled to sympathy. Likewise, any attacker of McCarthy is on the side of the angels.

But the subtleties and nuances of Ed Murrow's position would have been more interesting than this cardboard cut-out of a hero, which might have been culled from a cinema poster of the period. We see him doing showbiz interviews, and are led to believe that he did that dross work so as to be allowed to do the good stuff. But Murrow was a big figure - what are we to make of this condescension? Maybe a large salary came into all, somewhere. One can easily suppose that an interesting film might have been made about the birth of modern TV, and the values and dilemmas of men like William Paley, the CBS boss who wrestled with it. Indeed, what with this effort and The Insider (1999), with its right-on attack on CBS and Sixty Minutes for not taking on Big Tobacco, it's a pleasure to note that Bernard Goldberg, late of CBS, speaks sensibly on media bias (which he says is neither a conspiracy nor especially political).

Of course, these issues are perhaps not that important to Clooney, who has used this saga of the 1950s to tell us about the world half a century later. There is a moment when President Eisenhower talks of American freedoms such as Habeas Corpus. We are presumably meant to flash up mental images of men in orange boilersuits on wheeled gurneys. It's a fair joke: Guantanamo Bay takes some defending. (I'd give it a shot, myself, but have to accept it's an eccentric sport.)

At many moments - not least Murrow's speech excoriating the TV of his day - we are supposed to feel that we have squandered Murrow's fabulous legacy.

The problem here is that even now there is little evidence from anywhere that TV does much good journalism. It does put brave men and women into the world's many frontlines, and we get reportage. It will get the protagonists of controversies to fight their corners. But it seldom adds to the stock of understanding by its own original endeavours. It would be a fool who believed that we can rely on television to originate serious investigation or comment. It has almost always limped along behind, trying to find the pictures which tell the story we've already read in the papers.

It is a peculiar comfort to say that this is almost as true in Britain as it more obviously is in the US. (How often have you watched Panorama or some such and known that you'd need tomorrow’s papers for the full SP?) But have modern Americans really ignored Murrow's injunctions? It is fashionable and normal to sneer at Fox News, though I can't see why unintellectual reactionary people shouldn't have a news channel which suits them, if that's what they are prepared to support. But with even casual acquaintance with CNN, PBS, and C-SPAN (let alone HBO, whose West Wing is a civics lesson of some sophistication), a foreigner is free to suggest that Murrow would have some reason to feel that the media are in better shape now than ever.

Besides, as is tacitly acknowledged by Clooney's use of the web, there is now an astonishing variety of comment - let alone straight news - of quality available through one's laptop. Indeed, when I sought to understand whether Clooney was right about Murrow and McCarthy, it was the work of moments to find a considered, sceptical piece from Jack Shafer at Slate. The little I have added to the small stock of what I knew about McCarthy and Murrow before I saw Clooney's efforts, I have gleaned from that. The point being, of course, that this movie makes no effort to be half as nuanced as is Shafer's attack on it. The participate.net website does have references, true: it points one at the same books one imagines that Shafer has read. But it doesn't deliver the nuances that are in them.

Clooney insists that he struggled to be properly fair. But he is fair in the manner of an intelligent propagandist: GN&GL is just so fair as is necessary not to be risible. The problem with that is that not only - as he notes - do few people know anything about McCarthy and Murrow, but that most of them now think they know all they need to, courtesy of Clooney.

Isn't it a crying shame that George Clooney has done no better than Hollywood and TV usually does? Wouldn't Murrow be the first to flinch?

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world. He is also the editor of www.chernobyllegacy.com.


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Funny thing – a couple of weeks ago I wrote to a friend:

I see Clooney's latest about Ed Murrow and McCarthy is getting a good press. Just one worry though: all those luvvies ought to have it driven into their thick heads that much worse than McCarthy was par for the course in the Soviet Union and Red China - especially against artists.

So why not a film about Shostakovich? The best part of the score is already written! Or about Zhou Xinfang, the leading Peking Opera singer (and father of Tsai Chin) who was persecuted to death (background) during the Cultural Revolution, over an opera about the Chinese historical hero Hai Rui.

But we know where these guys are coming from. As an obituary of a great man says:

In 1962 Reagan finally switched his political allegiance from the Democratic party to the Republicans. He claimed that his confrontations with Communists who were trying to take control of the film industry's unions had contributed to his change of heart.
Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 15, 2006 08:56 PM
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I very much agree with the above, and also his earlier comments on Syriana. It leads on to a wider point about liberal Hollywood film makers in general when they start wearing their heart on their sleeves. They produce inferior films. They happen to be the sort of inferior films which win awards and Oscars, but they do not stand the judgement of time.
The prime example of this, perhaps too often cited, is High Noon, which was a direct response to the witch hunts of the time. It is clouded by the middlebrow gloss that varnishes all of Zinneman's films.
Howard Hawks, disgusted by the film's message, made Rio Bravo in response, and it is one of the best films by one of the best directors.
These days, however, it is hard to find great film makers of the right. John Milius was marginalised as a gun-waving fascist long ago.

Posted by: Christopher Peachment at March 17, 2006 02:23 PM
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