Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Tobias Hochscherf and Christoph Laucht


Few independent films have prompted as much noise as George Clooney’s second film as director Good Night, and Good Luck. Despite its – by Hollywood standards – relatively modest budget of $ 8 million, the picture was among the most hotly debated releases of 2005. Written by Clooney and Grant Heslov, the film caused controversy on two fronts: its historical representation of the McCarthy era and its subliminal resonances to the ongoing “War on Terror.” While the film was celebrated mostly by representatives of the liberal camp in the United States and especially in Europe (See, for instance, Time Out, London Issue, 15-22 February 2006), it was also subject to severe criticism for its allegedly narrow view, historical inaccuracies, and suggestiveness by others (mainly conservatives. See, for instance, Stephen Hunter, ‘“Good Night”: A Grey Era in Stark Black and White,” Washington Post, 7 October 2005, C01.). This article first analyzes how Good Night, and Good Luck depicts the confrontation between the prominent CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and, second, takes a closer look at the film’s allusions to current US politics.


Historical Representations of the McCarthy Era in Good Night, and Good Luck

Shot in incandescent black and white, Clooney’s 93-minute feature film takes the audience back to the days of 1950s television. To be more precise, the film focuses on the news team responsible for the CBS public affairs program See It Now (1951-58). Deriving its title from the line with which anchorman Edward R. Murrow routinely ended his broadcasts, Good Night, and Good Luck places the crew behind Murrow’s show at the center of its plot. Moreover, by means of casting, stylization, and camera foci, the film enhances the role of the See It Now news team in particular and celebrates investigative journalism in general. Featuring prominent stars (such as Robert Downey Jr. as Joe Wershba and Clooney himself as Fred Friendly) the cast underscores the clear position of the film to sympathize with the free media in their struggle to end McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunt. In contrast to that, the Wisconsin senator remains a flat character, as his presence in the film is limited to appearances drawn from original newsreel footage. While this limited presence could certainly be interpreted as one example of Good Night, and Good Luck’s narrow focus and tendency,it is through the use of archival materialsthat the film presents the viewer with a rather “authentic” picture of Senator McCarthy’s unsympathetic screen presence as it was actually felt by many TV viewers at the time (Schrecker 264).

While Clooney’s film makes reference to individual events that are pivotal in the context of Murrow’s campaign against McCarthy, like the case of US Air Force lieutenant Milo Radulovich or the See It Now program of March 9, 1954, which, according to historian Richard Fried, “may have revealed as much as guided the drift of opinion” (139), it generally lacks a broader contextualization of Murrow’s show within the cultural historical background of the time. In the late 1940s/early 1950s a series of events produced a sense of national crisis in the United States. The first test of a Soviet atom bomb which was largely attributed to the work of atomic spies like Alan Nunn May, Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, or the Rosenbergs, the “loss” of China to Mao Zedong as well as the outbreak of the Korean War promoted strong anti-Communist currents in the US. In this regard, Peter Hunter of the Washington Post has put forth perhaps the most extreme critique, arguing that Clooney “leaves out nuance, context, empathy, anything that suggests a larger truth that nothing is as simple as it seems. The film, therefore, is like a child’s view of these events, untroubled by complexity, hungry for myth and simplicity.” Although film historian Thomas Doherty has referred to Murrow’s televised anti-McCarthyrite statements as “the most dramatic, eloquent, and influential oration ever delivered by a television journalist, a rousing call to conscience that few news readers at an anchor desk have not fantasized about uncorking during a tense moment of national crisis and personal conscience” (174), the film would have benefited from placing it in a wider historical context.

One major consequence of Good Night, and Good Luck’s lacking contextualization is that McCarthy’s political motivation appears as indeterminate and his drastic actions seem to be rooted in an almost hysterical character. Clooney very carefully employs aesthetic qualities to underline the ideological and representational dichotomy between the diegetic TV employees and the Wisconsin junior senator. Framed by close ups and appearing in elegant three-piece suits it is in particular the combination of the screen personae and taciturn performance by Clooney, Downey Jr. and, above all, David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow that creates the image of sedate, resourceful and courageous men who are prepared to fight what they believe is wrong at all costs. The allusion to Eliot Ness’ team of brave, cool policemen in the classic TV series The Untouchables (1959 -1963) fighting Al Capone and the mob is not entirely unfounded. The film’s interpretation of Murrow depicts the iconic figurehead of the fledgling medium as an ever-serious man who never has any doubt about his opposition to McCarthy and who rather spoils the cheerful atmosphere during a salute for himself rather than giving up his admonitory stance.
What can be said about the representation of Murrow applies, by and large, to the entire film. While Good Night, and Good Luck lays bare the contradictions of McCarthy’s position as he created a climate of fear, the narrow focus of the film simplifies a rather complex era and the personnel involved. In a similar way to All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976), the film limits its account of American history entirely to the perspective of the respective journalists. Yet, unlike the 1976 film about the Watergate scandal, Good Night, and Good Luck is not only limited in its perspective but also in its locale; without a single exterior shot, its set is entirely restricted to the CBS studios in New York City. Accordingly, the film might wrongly suggest that that Murrow and his fellow CBS journalists were a lone voice of dissent [On other organizations and public figures fighting McCarthyism see, for instance, Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994), pp. 87-91].

Whether or not one agrees with this judgement, Clooney certainly succumbs the temptation, outlined by Ellen Schrecker, of “oversymplify[ing] matters and present[ing] the events of the McCarthy era as a struggle between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’” (Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism, p. vii). Yet it might be argued that in so doing the actor-director merely follows mainstream opinions about McCarty as one of America’s least honorable politicians. Indeed, Good Night, and Good Luck simply goes along and reinforces Truman’s judgment that the House Committee on Un-American Activities was the ‘most un-American thing in America in its day’ (Morison, p. 1074). Furthermore, the limited focus of the film is at least partially necessary for plot development. So Clooney creates in the limited cinematographic space of the newsroom the mesmerizing claustrophobic atmosphere and personal drama that characterizes the entire film. While every filmic account about a historical period per se requires some level of restriction, the limitations in terms of dramatis personae and locale in Good Night, and Good Luck are somewhat obligatory for its narrative procession that relies on phenomenological images showing the immediacy of the CBS news team. Or in other words, the suspense of the film’s plot relies entirely on its close focus, the tensions within the seemingly autonomous CBS newsroom. As much as Clooney might be a liberal demagogue, he is a skilful entertainer.

In fact, the confrontation with Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin is only a point of departure for paying homage to 1950s television. Thus the film focuses on Murrow’s treatment of the Milo Radulovich case, who was dismissed by the armed forces on account of his father’s alledged subversive actions, because the coverage was television’s first major instance of investigative reporting (See Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes, p. 292). By drawing special attention to the popular CBS newscaster and his program, the film epitomizes on the hegemonial power of the relatively new medium [the number of television sets drastically increased from 9.8 million in 1950 to 40 million in 1956. Figures quoted in David Caute, The Great fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (London: Secker & Warburg, 1978), p. 521]. For its representation of television, Good Night, and Good Luck ironically uses cinematographic aesthetics as ways of stylization. While the sets are meticulously reconstructed to resemble 1950s broadcasting standards, the cinematography is far from being naturalistic. The high production values of the ‘docudrama’ can clearly be seen in the slow pans, long dolly shots and medium close ups which rather resemble big-budget Hollywood productions than the hand-held cameras of TV reportages. The opening scenes amplify this effect of cinematographic aestheticization by way of Dianne Reeves’ sensual-melancholic jazz voice while the diegetic sound is faded out. All the film grain, shallow-focus shots, low-key lighting and delayed focus shifts underline that the film is anything but cinéma-vérité, as claimed by some critics (See A. O. Scott, ‘News in Black, White and Shades of Gray’, New York Times, 23 September 2005). The decision not to present Good Night, and Good Luck in colour also supports such a reading. While the use of black-and-white has been used to carry different meanings once it was no longer a technical necessity (for instance as a marker of naked violence in Scorsese’s Raging Bull in 1980), it serves several functions in Clooney’s film. First, it suggests a historical period. Owing to the fact that black and white as a means of aestheticisation is now commonly associated with innovative and arthouse cinemas rather than mainstream blockbusters, black and white, second, gives the film an aura of credibility. In sharp contrast to Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998), in which black and white visualises the simplicity and shallowness of 1950s television, the black-and-white format in Good Night, and Good Luck adds to the film’s nostalgic romanticisation. This is further supported by the stylized filmic representation of the early years of television using lush music, frequent drinks, and numerous cigarettes. Perhaps first and foremost, however, this ‘golden’ time when channels were not entirely spoilt by commercialism and political spin doctoring is characterized by the personalization of the medium through the central characters. Indeed, by means of individual action that culminates into a harsh critique of the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), TV acquires a cathartic function within American democracy and becomes part of the wider system of checks and balances. In celebrating the courage of Edward R. Murrow and his team, Good Night, and Good Luck certainly gives a selective view of the McCarthy controversy through its narrow focus. Yet, the film’s reflexivity evoked by its overt cinematic aestheticisation deconstructs its verisimilitude whilst being a tribute to the medium.


Good Night, and Good Luck as Comment on Current US Politics and Media Culture

Similarly to Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1953), many critics have pinpointed the parallels between Clooney’s film and contemporary US politics. While the Hollywood star has been accused of using his celebrity status as a platform for critique directed against the Bush administration, Good Night, and Good Luck surprisingly lacks any explicit reference to contemporary politics at all. It is thus entirely up to the audience to read some scenes as veiled and mostly general comments on contemporaneous affairs. The critical turmoil prompted by the film was rather caused by its context, its promotion and the actor director itself. First, the film was commonly seen in connection with Clooney’s other film Syriana. Roughly released at the same time as Good Night, and Good Luck the conspiracy drama by Stephen Gaghan revolves around the dubious activities of the US oil industry in crisis areas. Second, Clooney, admittedly a staunch critic of the Bush administration, has made it clear in interviews and the DVD commentary that the intertextualities between his films Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana and contemporaneous affairs are intentional. While such implications are never driven overtly Good Night, and Good Luck becomes an even more powerful admonishment against the infringement of constitutional rights. The analogies between McCarthy, who seeks to cut back liberal freedoms guaranteed under the constitution in the name of fears of a Communist Fifth Column in the State Department, and the Bush administration’s Patriot Act introduced in the wake of 9/11 are striking. The film’s promotion using the tagline “In a Nation Terrorized by Its Own Government, One Man Dared to Tell the Truth” furthermore supports such analogies. Inserted into the context of Guantánamo Bay internees, among them also citizens of EU member states, the remarks of Dwight D. Eisenhower who is seen in the film defending the right under common law of habeas corpus does not seem to have lost its actuality. Indeed, the congruences between the consequences of McCarthyism and the current situation seems striking at first glance. A so-called Red Scare was only substituted by a “Muslim scare.” Accordingly, the following judgment by historian Albert Fried could – with minor changes – also applied to some current activities:

So long as they did not disobey any court rulings the institutions could surreptitiously do as they pleased. During the wrathful sixties the CIA and NSA and Army Intelligence, along with the usual “red squads,” conducted massive campaigns of illegal surveillance and dossier-collecting of antiwar activists. [Albert Fried, McCarthyism: The Great American Red Scare: A Documentary History (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997), p. 5]

While some deemed Clooney’s form of veiled critique unjustified, others thought in does not go far enough. One European example is a review published by the London issue of Time Out. Therein the reviewer writes “[...] such is the extent of the soapbox that Clooney’s recently been given – on the back of both his film and Stephen Gaghan’s oil industry conspiracy-drama ‘Syriana’ – that the actor-director now appears to be the nearest thing that America has to an opposition. Should we laugh or cry?” (Time Out London Issue, 15-22 February 2006)

Implicit here, and in Good Night, and Good Luck, is a criticism directed against the US media industry in general and television in particular. The film at least suggests a fundamental difference between Murrow and his news team and contemporary journalists (such as the embedded reporters during the Iraqi War). Murrows struggle with McCarty is but one of the sensitive issues he tackled during his See It Now program as we are reminded at the beginning of the film; others included segregation, exploitation of migrant workers, apartheid, or J. Edgar Hoover. When the Radio Television News Directors’ Association salutes Murrow on 25 October 1958 for his achievement and courage, he has already lost his controversial public affairs program. Although the founder of CBS, Bill Paley, is initially does not intend to interfere with the editorial freedom of See It Now, he gives Murrow anything but carte blanche and eventually moves the program from its prime-time slot because of commercial restraints. Although not shown in the film, the See It Now was ultimately axed for the $ 64.000 Quiz, and Murrow only remained in charge of the celebrity show Person to Person. While he still deals with lies, Good Night, and Good Luck features an interview with Liberace in which the acclaimed pianist tells Murrow that there might be a Mrs. Liberace in the future but he has not yet met the right girl. Television so it seems has turned against political issues in favor of shallow entertainment. In Murrow’s address of the Radio Television News Directors’ Association at the beginning of the film, a speech that frames the film and serves as a comment of the main narrative, he gives a dystopic outlook on the state of the media:

[...] if there are any historians about 50 or 100 years from now – and there should be preserved the kinescopes of one week of all three networks – they will there find recorded in black and white and in colour evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from realities of the world in which we live. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have a built in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information.

Once again the film leaves it to the audience to compare the current situation with Murrow’s words. At a time when Paris Hilton is the hottest news almost anywhere on the globe there might be ground for a similar conclusion today. Notwithstanding all controversy surrounding Good Night, and Good Luck and justified criticism directed against the tendency to represent a complex era simplistically, the film portrays some basic and timeless democratic values held in high regards by Democrats and Republicans alike. By drawing parallels between politics and television this is particularly true in regard to the journalistic ethics and integrity that seeks to look beyond all spin-doctoring and weighted viewpoints. In this respect it seems surprising that the film has caused so much uproar in the first place. The vivid discussions sparked by the film’s release in the US and elsewhere, however, might well be greeted since the McCarthy era forms, as Ellen Schrecker notes, “an important part of our political heritage, one that requires analysis as well as retelling” (Schrecker, Age of McCartyism, p. vii).


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