Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Alternative Endings: Good Night and Good Luck

George Clooney's elegant film, "Good Night and Good Luck," playing locally at the Gulf Breeze Cinema 4, frames itself with a notable speech Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) delivered from a brightly lit elevated lecturn at the National Radio and Television News Directors Assocation convention in 1958. The speech was delivered near the end of Murrow's career as a CBS journalist, just seven years before he died of brain cancer at age 57.

In the opening scene, the stylishly-dressed audience smiles up at Murrow with good humored expectation, much as any audience might show eager anticipation at the start of a new show. By the end of the speech, to which we return as the film concludes, the audience has fallen silent. It is in shadows. Is the audience stunned by what has been said? Angry? Bored?

We can only guess what the people are thinking -- if they are thinking at all.

Inside this frame, Clooney (who co-wrote, directed, and plays the role of Fred Friendly) tells the story in lush black and white cinema photography of Murrow's dramatic exposure of the witch-hunting tactics of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. In Clooney's hands, as a number of reviewers take the trouble to explain for the many readers who do not know of it, this is a tale of individual journalistic courage during a very dark time in our nation's history.

Our former wartime ally, the Soviet Union, had become a Cold War adversary. Nuclear war seemed imminent. Propaganda films taught us to "duck and cover" in school when the bombs start falling. Neighbors shrouded their homes in canvas, vainly trying to hide the bomb shelters they were building for personal use. School teachers, employees of private companies, journalists, and millions of others were forced to sign loyalty oaths on pain of losing their livelihoods.

Heroic generals, university professors, opera stars and Hollywood film makers alike were humiliated, jailed, or blacklisted, often for no better reason than they claimed the First Amendment protected them against being forced to name supposed "communist synmpathizers" before grandstanding politicians in Washington.

As books like Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968 remind us, the public fear was so palpable that other regressive forces, like Southern segregationists, exploited it to thwart social movements they had always disliked, such as racial integration, labor unions, and even the fledgling environmental movement. (Some of us are old enough to remember how even proponents of the then-novel idea of standardizing daylight savings time across the U.S. were accused by some politicians of hatching a "communist plot" to tire our children, and how those who argued for flouridating city water supplies were accused of being communist dupes.)

The mere accusation of disloyalty ruined lives. Nearly everyone was afraid -- of everyone else.

It is against this backdrop, and the wonderful soundtrack of Dianne Reeves' smoky phrasing of Sarah Vaughn's repertoire, that Goodnight and Good Luck tells the story of how Murrow, Friendly, and the CBS See It Now team decided to take on McCarthy and expose his vile, guilt-by-assocation tactics.

It is true that Murrow, himself, did not bring down McCarthy. If any single person can be said to have done it, that distinction probably belongs to the genteel Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, during the Army-McCarthy Hearings which were broadcast nationally by rival network ABC just a few months after Murrow's exposé.

But Clooney has made a film about the news media, not McCarthy. As Stephanie Zacharek writes in Salon.com (subscription required), "This is a picture about a turning point in the media that also helped force a turning point in history." [emphasis added]
What's exceptional about 'Good Night, and Good Luck' ... is that it doesn't sacrifice craftsmanship and elegance at the altar of its strong convictions. This is serious grown-up entertainment with a sense of history and a sense of style, the kind of picture almost no one knows how to -- or, perhaps more accurately, can find the means to -- make anymore.
In fact, Good Night and Good Luck cost only $8 million to make. To an industry that forks out $200 million to make Spiderman-2 and $170 million to film and distribute Terminator-3, that's barely a pittance. As with the deplorable state of television news programming today, it's neither a lack of knowledge nor a lack of means that explains why superior films like Good Night and Good Luck are made so rarely. It's more likely a lack of will on the part of someone or something.

Who is to blame? The film certainly presents, front-and-center, a tale of journalistic courage in confronting the evil of Joe McCarthy. Not just the courage of Murrow, either, or of his See It Now team of journalists and producers. There were others whose names are now all but lost to history, like Elmer Davis, I.F. Stone, George Seldes, Herb Block, Bill Mauldin, to name just a few.

Standing in for all of them in Clooney's movie is the tragic figure of Don Hollenbeck. Hollenbeck was the Walter Cronkite of his day -- a voice as recognizable and trusted by Americans as any in the history of electronic journalism. As Zacharek describes the plot in her Salon review:
The chief action in "Good Night, and Good Luck" is decision making: Basically, we're watching a bunch of white guys getting together in a room, talking (and smoking) a lot, and then one of them, Murrow, writes something and goes before the camera. But the picture isn't boring for an instant: Clooney finds shorthand ways to clue us in to the personalities of these men, so they come off as real people rather than as symbols. (And there is one woman, Shirley Wershba, played with delightful sharpness by Patricia Clarkson -- one of the movie's most intriguing sub-threads concerns her marriage to Joe Wershba, which had to be kept secret because of network regulations.) Ray Wise, as news anchor Don Hollenbeck -- who committed suicide as a result of the attacks Hearst columnist and McCarthy flunky Jack O'Brian made against him in print -- gives a beautifully shaped performance in a small role that's nonetheless essential to the movie.

And Strathairn makes a terrific Murrow, showing us a man of intensity and intelligence but also one with a sly, slow-burning sense of humor. (When one of the crew praises an interview he's just completed with Liberace on his other CBS show, the far more lightweight "Person to Person," he gives the guy a sidelong glance like a death ray.) Strathairn's voice has just the right tone and timber -- it does complete justice to Murrow's eloquence. And you need a great voice to carry words like these, from a 1954 "See It Now" broadcast: "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.
With a film message like that, most professional reviewers of Good Night and Good Luck have been unable to resist commenting on the contemporary political parallels raised by this historically grounded story. Examples:
  • Dan Loughry (In L.A. Magazine ): "The film doesn't make us wonder how this ugly part of our history could have happened. Instead, it wonders: Where are the American journalists willing to take on the received wisdom of the day? It's terrifying to think they might also be part of our past."

  • Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times):"Clooney's message is clear: Character assassination is wrong, McCarthy was a bully and a liar, and we must be vigilant when the emperor has no clothes and wraps himself in the flag."

  • Steve Persall (St. Petersburg Times): "The Cold War had Murrow, Vietnam had Walter Cronkite and now Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever's next have Fox News Channel and Jon Stewart. Something is wrong with this picture. Good Night, and Good Luck is Clooney's passionate, possibly vain attempt to make it right."

  • David Denby ( The New Yorker Magazine)): "There’s little gravy in attacking Joe McCarthy in 2005, and that’s only a small part of what Clooney is up to. His real intention appears to be to deliver a blow to the patella of a conglomerate-controlled press corps that, until recently, has indulged the Bush Administration’s most extravagant smears and lies. He has completely succeeded."
Other than Denby, few reviewers go beyond the main drama of Murrow's personal heroism to suggest, as honestly as Clooney's film does in its sub-plot with the character of Bill Paley (Frank Langella), what the root cause may be for our modern media's malaise. But Ben Bagdikian and Robert W. McChesney put it forthrightly in their latest books, The New Media Monopoly and The Problem of of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century.

Owing to a series of new laws and FCC regulations beginning in the late Reagan era and a dramatically changed legal environment that now endorses monopolies rather than prosecuting them, today, as Bagdikian documents, "five global-dimension firms, operating with many of the characteristics of a cartel, own most of the newspapers, magazines, book publishers, motion picture studios, and radio and television stations in the United States."
Each medium they own, whether magazines or broadcast stations, covers the entire country, and the owners prefer stories and programs that can be used everywhere and anywhere. Their media products reflect this.

* * *
These five conglomerates are Time Warner, by 2003 the largest media firm in the world; The Walt Disney Company; Murdoch's News Corporation, based in Australia; Viacom; and Bertelsmann, based in Germany. Today, none of the dominant media companies bother with dominance merely in a single medium. Their strategy has been to have major holdings in all the media, from newspapers to movie studios. This gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history.
As McChesney writes, this monopolization creates a "crucial tension... between the role of the media as profit-maximizing commercial organizations and the need for the media to provide the basis for informed self-government."
The United States has not satisfactorily addressed the problem of the media in recent generations. As a result, the media system has been set up to serve the interests of those who make the policies behind closed doors -- large profit-driven media corporations -- while the broad and vital interests of the population have been largely neglected.

* * *
On balance, the media system has become -- ironically, in the view of the press clause in the First Amendment -- a significantly antidemocratic force. It is a political problem that requires a political solution.
For Roger Ebert, who liked it very much, Clooney's film "is like a morality play, from which we learn how journalists should behave."

One suspects Murrow would have disagreed. Twice during the film -- once, just as he did on the air when confronting McCarthy -- Murrow quotes Shakespeare's famous line, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

If Good Night and Good Luck is a morality play, it's not just about how journalists should behave. It's about what kind of media policies we, the public, should be demanding at the ballot box as well as in our homes.

A clue to this lies in the darkly amusing anecdote Clooney shared with Cole Smithey of Arriviste Press shortly after the film opened. Asked if he had given any thought to an alternative ending, instead of closing with Murrow's parting words from the 1958 speech, Clooney said they actually filmed one:
We had basically made a montage of the greatest hits of television moments, and then as they rapidly decline it was down to the O.J. chase and then the piece, done in L.A., where there was a car chase and the guy sets his truck on fire, and he takes off all of his clothes, and he blows his head off on live television. And you could hear the people in the background, in the newsroom, laughing and the guy says, "There's your lead news story."
That's the lead story today's television producers think we want to see. If it bleeds, it leads," goes the modern, post-Murrow mantra. Or, as Chicago TV news anchor and Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin once said of her colleagues:
We're more and more uncomfortable with challenging power. We're afraid of being unpopular, we are afraid of shrinking markets. We have forgotten to say the words "public trust." And the worst corruption of all is the creeping commercialism.
It doesn't have to be that way. But it's up to each of us to write an alternative ending.

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