Precisely every 23 minutes, the standard length of a half-hour of broadcast network television, Good Night, and Good Luck. is interrupted by a jazz song. This instills George Clooney’s Red Scare historical drama with a distinctly episodic feel, mirroring the drama that unfolds on screen. The story follows newscaster Edward R. Murrow as he and others at CBS confront Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of his anti-communist witch hunts. Shot in color but corrected to black-and-white, the film returns us to another time where paranoia ruled the nation, and where men capable of capitalizing on it rose to national prominence by fanning the fear. It also offers a biting condemnation of media outlets in general, and especially the corporate nature of television broadcasts.
The film is framed by a retrospective speech delivered by Murrow (David Straitham) to the Radio and Television News Directors Association five years after the events involving McCarthy in 1953. This famous speech, cheekily referred to as his “Wires and lights in a box” speech, serves as an introduction to the issues at the onset of the film, and will provide an adequate conclusion later. The speech is delivered expertly by Straitham, who isolates Murrow’s mannerisms and employs them to great effect (audio of Murrow’s actual speech is available at the above link).
The crux of the narrative, and that which we are meant to focus upon, is the decision made by Murrows and his staff to spearhead an attack on Senator Joeseph McCarthy by revealing the dishonest tactics by which he roots out “undesirable” elements of the U.S. government by accusing them of having Communist sympathies. The journalists understand that this will be a high-profile move, and will likely result in McCarthy’s accusations being directed towards some of them, but they have had enough.
Murrow first identifies the case of Milo Radulovich, an Air Force official who is in danger of losing his job because his sister attended a communist meeting in the past, and his father subscribes to a Serbian newspaper. McCarthy uses these facts to oust Radulovich, but Murrow and his crew dig up the facts of the case and show recordings of McCarthy which contradict his current positions. They openly question the existence of a policy by which a hard-working American can be deprived of his livelihood merely because his sister and father made certain “incorrect” choices.
Predictably, the sponsors for Murrow’s show immediately balk when McCarthy fires back at Murrow, accusing him of belonging to a union called the Industrial Workers of the World. Murrow demonstrates that this is patently false and a clear-cut case of muck-raking, and further shows how McCarthy means merely to bully others through fear. Eventually, Murrow discredits McCarthy fully, but the station and their sponsors refuse to renew his show. It’s “Bad for business”, they say.
A poignant subplot involves a friend and colleague of Murrow, Dan Hollenbeck. Directly following Murrow’s first public attack on McCarthy, Hollenbeck was the first anchor with the opportunity to react. He did so by telling the viewers that he wanted, “to associate myself with what Ed Murrow has just said, and say I have never been prouder of CBS.” Criticisms of Murrow and CBS featured prominently in the New York Journal American, especially by McCarthy-supporter Jack O’Brian. One scene in the film dramatizes this, and shows that while Murrow and his team shrug off the right-wing vitriol of O’Brian, Hollenbeck is more-easily wounded. Coupled with struggles in his personal life, O’Brien’s yellow journalism proves too much for Hollenbeck, who commits suicide via natural gas inhalation.
Good Night, and Good Luck strives to show the danger inherent in identifying an ideology – any ideology – as illegal, but also carries a strong sub-theme of the nature of television as an informative tool. As the film closes, we return to Murrow’s speech, which can be applied as easily to film, music, or other artistic endeavors as it can to television:
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.
-Edward R. Murrow
As I have documented often in these pages, when humans are determined to inspire with film they can reach unrivaled heights of beauty. When that goal is ancillary, “wires and lights in a box” becomes a kind euphemism for formulaic mediocrity. Fortunately, films belonging to the former group continue to be produced and heralded; Good Night, and Good Luck can count itself among them.