Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Murrow vs. McCarthy

A still from Good Night, and Good Luck

It appears we’ll finally have a good film that deals with Joe McCarthy. Guilty By Suspicion, focusing more specifically on the Hollywood blacklist, was well-intentioned but uneven at best. Meanwhile, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, while apparently not a classic for the ages, is quite a worthwhile film, reportedly with the added virtue of being accurate.

(I’ve always been somewhat ashamed that Joe McCarthy came from my birth state, Wisconsin. Other than mediocre beer, only good things should come from Wisconsin, like cheese, OshKosh jeans, and the Green Bay Packers.)

Clooney claims that every scene is verified by at least two sources, and in one of the more interesting choices, Joe McCarthy effectively plays himself — all his appearances are archival footage. Clooney takes the smaller role of Fred Friendly, while the always superb David Strathairn plays legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.

Joseph McCarthy

It’s striking but perhaps not surprising that so few kids today know of McCarthy (to the point Clooney’s been asked, who’s the actor playing McCarthy? Clooney, ever the prankster, has thought of taking out “For Your Consideration” ads for his villain). I remember when studying McCarthy I was surprised to discover he had a relatively short reign, roughly 1950 to 1954, while the Hollywood blacklist in fact far outlasted him. Also, in addition to the harm caused by rumors and slander, there was indeed a physical blacklist (in 1997, PBS’ NewsHour piece interviewed two victims of the blacklist).

Some scholars point to Spartacus as the film that definitively broke the blacklist, because one of the Hollywood Ten, the great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, was prominently credited (amazingly, he penned two Oscar-winning screenplays under fronts during the blacklist!). Spartacus, however, didn’t come out until 1960, when McCarthy had been dead for three years. It’s hard to imagine how much people were terrified of the Dread Red Menace and terrorized by Joe McCarthy, with only a few people like Murrow and the great cartoonist Walt Kelly having the guts to take him on.

Kelly’s depiction of McCarthy as Simple J. Malarkey from Pogo

There are a number of articles on the film and Clooney. You can read The Los Angeles Times’ one here, The New York Times one here, Salon’s here (if you can stand navigating their site), The Guardian’s here, and if a remarkably cranky one here by a reviewer who professes his hatred for such similarly crappy fare as All the President’s Men and Quiz Show (sounds like a ringing endorsement!).

Clooney apparently closes the film with these lines from a famous speech by Murrow in 1958 to his fellow broadcasters:

"To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: there is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose?

"Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box."

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