Good Night and Good Luck is a good movie. Most people won’t go to see it, because it is in black and white. They will miss a charmingly shot and paced film — kudos to George Clooney as director. They will also miss, in my opinion, an outstanding piece of acting by David Strathairn as Murrow. Finally, they will miss a fine piece of propaganda.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t (particularly) a criticism of the film. I suspect, given a background in communication, I came in with a bit more history than most. I fully recognized that Murrow’s program was most likely no more than a coup de grace for McCarthy, who had already managed to overreach the paranoia of the time. And so, I found nothing especially misleading about the film. Others, however, have.
Is it the case that the average viewer will enter the theater knowing nothing about the Murrow-McCarthy interaction, and leave thinking that Murrow single-handedly brought down Joe? I don’t read that in the film, but it is possible. And even if it is the case, is there something wrong with that? That is, is it the filmmaker’s responsibility to make up for an audiences lack of historical knowledge?
If this case is too obvious, how about a more subtle one. HBO’s miniseries Rome. I heard an interview with a classisist on NPR who wanted to make clear that women bathing in bulls’ blood was entirely anachronistic. I am sure HBO took license in more than just this.
Do these problems mar the film or the series? Does the “letters of transit” ex machina in Casablanca make it an especially flawed film. Of course not. In none of these cases is the departure from history enough to upset our suspension of disbelief nor lead us too far astray from the historical moment. My guess is that most Americans do not know who McCarthy was. And so while the film may go a bit fast and loose with the details, leaving the audience with the impression that Murrow put an end to McCarthyism single-handedly, it at least provides an entry-point for thinking about the press and the state. I have a feeling this is really point of the film, and the actual story is incidental to this.
I have yet to see a clear parallel drawn to the Katrina coverage, but I’m sure it is there. Audiences were relieved and energized when reporters were willing to challenge Brown and others in the government on their handling of the disaster, but many are now pointing to inaccuracies in their coverage of the situation in New Orleans shelters. Reporting cannot be unbiased, and as Murrow argues in the film, not all stories can or should be balanced. The balance, instead, is in how much you are able to use the facts to tell your story.
The film itself opens the door to such a criticism. In one of the final scenes Murrow talks with Frank Stanton, who accuses Murrow of hand-picking his facts. Clooney has clearly done this here, seeking to persuade as much as inform. But I think criticism of this could be answered in the way that Murrow defends his own reporting: not all stories deserve balance. The end of McCarthism is a myth that, it seems until recently, defined us as Americans. It is something that should be a reminder of how badly our country can go astray when it is frightened, and how fragile the liberal society that makes up America really can be.
Murrow represents an archetype that is important to being an American. One who is willing to lead the masses to stand up for themselves. As Satan says (how often do you get to write that) in Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger”:
I know your race. It is made up of sheep. It is governed by minorities, seldom or never by majorities. It suppresses its feelings and its beliefs and follows the handful that makes the most noise. Sometimes the noisy handful is right, sometimes wrong; but no matter, the crowd follows it. The vast majority of the race, whether savage or civilized, are secretly kind-hearted and shrink from inflicting pain, but in the presence of the aggressive and pitiless minority they don’t dare to assert themselves. Think of it! One kind-hearted creature spies upon another, and sees to it that he loyally helps in iniquities which revolt both of them. Speaking as an expert, I know that ninety-nine out of a hundred of your race were strongly against the killing of witches when that foolishness was first agitated by a handful of pious lunatics in the long ago. And I know that even to-day, after ages of transmitted prejudice and silly teaching, only one person in twenty puts any real heart into the harrying of a witch. And yet apparently everybody hates witches and wants them killed. Some day a handful will rise up on the other side and make the most noise — perhaps even a single daring man with a big voice and a determined front will do it — and in a week all the sheep will wheel and follow him, and witch-hunting will come to a sudden end.
Monarchies, aristocracies, and religions are all based upon that large defect in your race — the individual’s distrust of his neighbor, and his desire, for safety’s or comfort’s sake, to stand well in his neighbor’s eye. These institutions will always remain, and always flourish, and always oppress you, affront you, and degrade you, because you will always be and remain slaves of minorities. There was never a country where the majority of the people were in their secret hearts loyal to any of these institutions.
I think Satan might have something there. And I think it is something television journalists ought to pin to their office walls.
I really hope people go out to see this film. Even if they walk away with a view of the episode that is colored, I think the spirit shows through. Besides, it’s a fun movie.