The irresistible force of America's post–World War II Red Scare first slammed into the immovable object of network television in September 1953, when the House Un-American Activities Committee revealed that TV's biggest star had registered to vote in the 1936 election as a Communist. The redhead was a Red.
For the next week, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz -- or, rather, Lucy and Desi, as neither broke character throughout the crisis -- spun like dervishes, giving interviews and working their fans. Careers had been smashed for far less, but ultimately Lucy's flaming past only made sense as one more domestic mishap -- she had, she explained, just been trying to please another character, her wacky “socialist” grandpa. The sponsor held fast, and so did CBS. Thus did TV assert itself as the narrative engine of American public life. Next, the emboldened medium would expose and topple the most fearsome Communist-hunter of all, America's grand inquisitor and witch-finder general, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin.
The particulars of that exposure are the subject of George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. A classy docudrama shot in crisp black and white, Clooney's movie takes its title from CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow's trademark sign-off, and, with admirable restraint, restages the multi-round 1953–54 televised prizefight in which the urbane journalist vanquished the roughneck demagogue -- or, rather, set him up for the televised act of self-destruction that was the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Having achieved media stardom in the early 1950 aftermath of Alger Hiss' perjury conviction, the Wisconsin senator thrived throughout the Korean War and never seemed more formidable than after the 1952 Republican landslide. The real key to the election was General Dwight Eisenhower's popularity, but, as always with McCarthy, perception trumped reality. A master of political symbolism, he had cast himself as the two-fisted hero in a cosmic drama, and much of the American public was enthralled.
As the Republicans now controlled the Senate, McCarthy became chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which he ran as a one-man show. (Only a few weeks after he assumed his chairmanship, Arthur Miller's The Crucible opened on Broadway, providing a readymade metaphor for what was happening in Washington.) Targeting the State Department, McCarthy called investigations at will, wreaking havoc but uncovering little. During the summer of 1953, he announced plans to subpoena former President Harry Truman, held a one-day hearing on a conspiracy to assassinate … himself, and variously threatened to probe the Atomic Energy Commission, the CIA, and the Pentagon. As the year waned, he finally discovered that a left-wing Army dentist named Irving Peress had been promoted to major -- the armed forces were rife with communist subversion!
A January 1954 Gallup Poll gave McCarthy a 50-percent favorable rating. Then, on Tuesday evening, March 9, 1954, CBS broadcast See It Now's “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.” And everything changed. Did TV really bring down McCarthy? As noted by historian Thomas Doherty in Cold War, Cool Medium, “Murrow was neither the first nor did he risk the most in challenging McCarthyism.” More than a few newspapermen, editorial cartoonists, and radio commentators had already attacked the senator; The New York Times, the New York Herald-Tribune, The Washington Post, and even Time magazine were hostile to McCarthy. Indeed, the very day of Murrow's report, Senator Ralph Flanders, Republican of Vermont, had ridiculed McCarthy's investigation: “He dons his war paint. He goes into his war dance. He emits his war whoops. He goes forth to battle and proudly returns with the scalp of a pink Army dentist.”
Flanders' remarks brought immediate congratulation from President Eisenhower -- but Eisenhower did not present himself as McCarthy's antagonist. That role was assumed by Murrow, a familiar face and voice -- even something of a war hero, remembered for his live broadcasts during the London Blitz -- who would bring McCarthy into America's living rooms.
Good Night, and Good Luck picks up the McCarthy saga some months before the famous broadcast, in October 1953, with the CBS news staff discussing the network loyalty oath that even Murrow signed. (In one of its few historical lapses, the movie implies that this oath -- implemented nearly three years earlier -- is a recent development.) Murrow (David Strathairn) and his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), are planning their anti-McCarthy strategy. The first See It Now treatment of McCarthy (or his –ism) will report an egregious case of guilt by association: Air Force Reserve officer Milo Radulovich has been labeled a “security risk” and asked to resign his commission because he continues to maintain contact with his immigrant father, a reader of allegedly “subversive newspapers.”
Nervous CBS declined to promote the telecast, so Murrow and Friendly paid for a New York Times ad themselves. But, as with Lucy, human interest and family values -- amplified by television -- trumped the communist threat. Although the Pentagon initially challenged the story as “without merit,” it was only a matter of time before the secretary of the Air Force appeared on See It Now to announce that the young lieutenant had been exonerated.
According to Doherty, Murrow and Friendly had their McCarthy report prepared and were only waiting for an opportune airdate. And in early 1954, McCarthy provided that when he told General Ralph W. Zicker, whom he had been badgering regarding the Peress promotion, that he was “not fit to wear [his] uniform.” In Good Night, and Good Luck, the impetus comes from the staff's desire to protect Murrow: “We've got to hit McCarthy before they go after Ed.”
Good Night, and Good Luck recreates much of the March 9 show, which was itself an exercise in intellectual montage, largely devoted to showcasing McCarthy's interrogation of bewildered witnesses. But the movie is hardly a straightforward reconstruction. Rather than digitally Gump-ing Strathairn into the televised '50s, Clooney rigorously juxtaposes (and, in effect, annotates) the actual McCarthy with Strathairn's cannily understated performance. Bertolt Brecht would have approved: Strathairn doesn't impersonate Murrow, he quotes him -- delivering Murrow's famous closer, arguably the most eloquent expression of Cold War liberalism prior to John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, directly into the camera.
Murrow's report on McCarthy was well received, and, documenting testimony given in the following days, See It Now pushed its advantage. “Annie Lee Moss Before the McCarthy Committee,” telecast the following week, presented the dramatic high point of McCarthy's current investigation into a middle-aged African American code clerk fired by the Pentagon for her alleged Communist Party affiliations. Moss proved the most sympathetic -- or perhaps just the most pathetic -- of victims. “No one who heard [this poor, utterly nonpolitical woman] could doubt her honesty,” I.F. Stone wrote at the time. “‘Wazzat?' she cried when [Senator Stuart Symington] asked her if she had ever read Karl Marx.” (Moss' performance is all the more fascinating in that she most likely was a party member brilliantly feigning befuddlement to bamboozle the subcommittee.)
Featuring a telegenic character comparable to Milo Radulovich's father, who had memorably called upon President Eisenhower in broken English to reinstate his boy, “Annie Lee Moss” received even better press notices than the McCarthy report. On April 6, See It Now telecast McCarthy's response. Glaring into the camera, the senator sonorously denounced Murrow as “the leader and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose Communists or traitors.” In the movie, as in life, no comment needs to be made. McCarthy is practically booing himself.
When someone bursts into the newsroom, shouting, “The Senate is investigating McCarthy!” Strathairn's Murrow permits himself a single smile. But then the bad news: His colleague Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), host of CBS Views the Press, ill and harassed by a red-baiting Hearst TV critic, has committed suicide. (Hollenbeck's death actually occurred a few months later.) The following week, the Army-McCarthy hearings began, and McCarthy was history. To see it, rent the 1964 documentary by Emile de Antonio, Point of Order.
As filmmaking, Good Night, and Good Luck is strikingly ascetic. Clooney's Murrow seemingly has no life other than his television productions. He is perfectly focused -- and so is the movie. Good Night, and Good Luck may be a bit didactic and a tad schematic (after every crucial scene, the CBS newsroom retires en masse to a neighborhood boîte to drink in chanteuse Dianne Reeves). But it is also surprisingly serious.
Or maybe not so surprising: An outspoken liberal who used an interview with Charlie Rose to compare the Bush family to the Sopranos, Clooney has shown himself to be a filmmaker whose main interest is political drama. He co-produced the short-lived Washington quasi-reality series K Street and the live telecast of Fail-Safe; his first movie, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, dramatized Gong Show host Chuck Barris' fantastic assertions that he had really been an undercover CIA hit man -- giddier, but not altogether unrelated to Good Night, and Good Luck in its portrayal of tele-heroics.
Good Night, and Good Luck celebrates the fraternity of the newsroom and burns much tobacco on the altar of Murrow's cult. It is not, however, a self-congratulatory celebration of television. The movie is framed by a 1958 testimonial dinner in which Murrow delivers a stern jeremiad on the medium; it reaches its climax when the triumphant newsman is called on the carpet by CBS Chairman William Paley (Frank Langella at his chilliest). Murrow's reward for demolishing McCarthy is, in essence, a demotion. Paley informs his star reporter that he will be doing fewer episodes of See It Now, which is also to be buried in an obscure time slot, and more of the prime-time celebrity journalism practiced in his other show, Person to Person.
The lesson has scarcely dated. Murrow bested McCarthy in good measure because personality trumps information in the ongoing miniseries of American public life. Thanks to television, it still does.
J. Hoberman is a senior film critic for The Village Voice and the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties.