In the first instalment of this series, we examined a movie related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. This month, we turn the clock back another decade or so, to the heyday of the Second Red Scare in the United States, which enabled the cultural rise of the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Senator Joseph McCarthy, into a potent national figure. Riding high on pervasive political and cultural paranoia that organized Communists stood ready to overthrow the United States government at a moment’s notice, McCarthy launched one barrage of accusations after another, alleging that the government was literally crawling with Soviet agents planning to destroy American democracy. The unspoken message herein was that he alone was the one capable of revealing the truth and fighting back the global Red Tide that, according to him, was just around the corner.
Until, that is, a group of journalists finally resolved to puncture the veneer of invulnerability McCarthy was projecting, digging into the meat of his accusations to determine how much truth, if any, there was to them. The team that did this was led by Edward R. Murrow, already famous for his invaluable wartime broadcasts from London during the Nazi Blitz. In his televised broadcasts, he laid into the more disturbing aspects of McCarthy’s campaign. This, of course, prompted a ferocious response from McCarthy himself, but sure enough, this opened the floodgates; more criticism from all sides started to pour in, until the Senate itself reprimanded and silenced McCarthy, shunting him out of the limelight, to which he never returned.
This is the story told by the 2005 George Clooney film Good Night, and Good Luck; the title is derived from Murrow’s standard closing phrase for the program on which he aired his McCarthy broadcasts, See It Now. David Strathairn, in one of the finest performances of his career, leads as Edward Murrow, and he is supplemented by spot-on performances by George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella, Patricia Clarkson, and Jeff Daniels, each playing various members of the CBS staff connected to the broadcasts.
In a number of disturbing ways, these events provide even more direct, almost word-for-word comparisons to current events than Selma, not least because of how much McCarthy and Donald Trump mirror each other. They both rely almost solely on incessant bullying for their power, as well as aggressive disregard for facts, due process, civil discourse and democratic norms, and a cult of personality that for McCarthy seemed, and for Trump currently seems, unstoppable.
But this also goes beyond mere comparisons of narcissistic demagogues. Much as we are now forced to confront and adapt our societies to the possibilities and dangers of the internet and the communications revolution it has wrought, McCarthy and his feud with Murrow also took place amidst a similar cultural shift, when television was just beginning to replace radio and newspapers as a cultural force of its own and a potent source of news and worldview for a large number of people. The scale of magnitude between then and today may be different, but the fundamental challenges of such a shift remain the same.
This is highlighted most effectively by a famous speech Murrow gave several years after McCarthy faded, known as the “Wires and Lights in a Box” speech. The beginning and end of this speech bookends the film, and contains the core of Murrow’s philosophy about the importance of us utilizing new media technologies for good, and actively fighting against the instinct to use them for either malevolence, or laziness. Really, simply substitute the word “television” for “internet,” and someone could make the exact same speech almost word-for-word today.
This touches on something that is crucial to giving this film its power; both the speech at beginning/end and the broadcasts regarding McCarthy are no poetic licenses taken by the screenwriters- they are word-for-word recreations of Murrow’s actual speeches and broadcasts. Strathairn nails every one of Murrow’s mannerisms (seriously, just watch these clips back-to-back and try to spot the differences). Clooney also made the brilliant decision of not having anyone act as McCarthy- whenever he pops up, that’s actual footage of THE McCarthy, not an actor. This subtle detail was reportedly lost on some of the test audiences, who criticized the person playing McCarthy for being too over the top.
I will close this post with a recommendation to not just see the movie, but to also read Roger Ebert’s original review of the film. At the risk of being unoriginal, I feel compelled to end with a direct quote from his review, because it is such a powerfully concise summary of both the movie and the lessons (and glimmers of hope) it offers us today:
"McCarthy is a liar and a bully, surrounded by yes-men, recklessly calling his opponents traitors, (and) he commands great power for a time. He destroys others with lies, and then is himself destroyed by the truth.”
“Character assassination is wrong…and we must be vigilant when the emperor has no clothes and wraps himself in the flag.”