Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Good Night, Good Luck, Good Movie
The story of the TV series See It Now and Edward R. Murrow's fight against the McCarthy witch hunt is well-known--although what the movie Good Night, and Good Luck makes clear is that Murrow didn't see it as a fight, exactly, but rather, as a matter of saying what conscientious Americans were obligated to say about McCarthy's tactics, and about the McCarthyite vision of America that inspired the use of those tactics.

Doing the right thing, even when we know it's the right thing, sometimes requires courage nevertheless. Murrow's courage is often taken for granted. From our distant vantage point in time, we assume that he knew what was right and he did it without a second thought. In the movie, we see him giving some of his most famous and eloquent speeches about civil liberties and citizen responsibility. But when the TV cameras go off, we also see the strain of taking those stands: Murrow's eyes close, he sighs, he swallows--he reaches for another of his ubiquitous cigarettes, which he often smokes down to his fingertips. We see a dry wit, but we notice that it's always used in an attempt to break tension--and that it often doesn't. Murrow feared for his own career, and for the lives and livelihoods of the people on the See It Now team. Yes, he and co-producer Fred Friendly knew what they had to do, but they didn't blunder blindly ahead without knowing what it could cost.

There are a couple of subplots in the movie: one involving CBS anchorman Don Hollenbeck, who's been caught up in the Communist witch hunt himself, and another involving Joe and Shirley Wershba, two members of the production crew who are secretly married. Joe is played by Robert Downey Jr. and Shirley by Patricia Clarkson. She's especially good (or at least I think she is; I've got a little thing for her, so I may not be able to judge). David Strathairn, one of our great chameleon-like actors, plays Murrow. I don't know what constitutes an Oscar-worthy performance, but I know a good actor when I see one, and Strathairn was great, as he's so often been in his other films. Director and co-writer George Clooney plays Fred Friendly.

The movie also uses performances by jazz singer Dianne Reeves as a framing device, and the music is superb. The first sequence in the film, in which an elegant old-school jazz number plays while the characters, whom we have yet to meet, socialize at a banquet that turns out to be in Murrow's honor, is positively luscious. Anybody who thinks black and white can't be as beautiful as color should watch that sequence, and the sensuous way the cigarette smoke curls around the actors in nearly every other scene.

Inasmuch as the movie contains lessons for our time, here's one: People in power don't get to suspend the rules just because they say the world is too dangerous not to. Their fear does not automatically have to become our fear. And this: Citizens never give up their right--their responsibility--to speak the truth about what the powerful are doing with their power. Or as Murrow put it in his famous McCarthy broadcast of March 1954:
We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. 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 our 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 that were, for the moment, unpopular.

This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
Another lesson from the film regards journalism as it's practiced today. Murrow is held in reverence by many journalists who claim to be carrying on his legacy--even as they are shilling for wars being waged under false pretenses or interviewing runaway brides, even as they're spreading fear and feelings of helplessness, even as they're providing far more heat than light. It's certainly possible to view the movie is as an indictment of modern media's fascination with the trivial. This isn't a modern phenomenon, however. The movie begins with Murrow giving a famous 1958 speech to a broadcasting industry group in which he criticized the industry's values. He even felt as though he was contributing to the vapidity of television with a celebrity interview program the network required him to host, Person to Person. Murrow's feelings about his own time aside, such fascination seems to be costing us a lot more in 2005 than it did in 1958--but some of his words should bear an uncomfortable sting even now:
But this nation is now in competition with malignant forces of evil who are using every instrument at their command to empty the minds of their subjects and fill those minds with slogans, determination and faith in the future. If we go on as we are, we are protecting the mind of the American public from any real contact with the menacing world that squeezes in upon us. We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public opinion can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation. We may fail. But we are handicapping ourselves needlessly.
He was talking about being in competition with Communism, but his words can just as easily be applied to modern media-driven conservatism, or to our own enjoyment of media-saturated intellectual lassitude. Both keep us from seeing clearly the world that squeezes in on us, and both make it difficult for us to govern our affairs by truly free public opinion. And as it was in 1958, so it is today: It doesn't have to be that way.

I have written here before that I am not a movie-theater person. The appeal of the big screen and the communal experience of watching with a group of strangers are both grossly overrated. I'd much rather wait six months and watch a movie on DVD in my own comfortable living room. So if I am actually going to leave my house, drive to the theater, park, walk, and plunk down hard coin to sit there, the movie I see had better be something special. Good Night, and Good Luck certainly was.

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