There are few facts on display in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” actor George Clooney’s liberal version of CBS-TV news commentator Edward R. Murrow’s 1953 feud with Joe McCarthy, the fiercely anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin.
The movie, which opened yesterday, presents the feud as an emotional battle of political rhetoric, with the loser, of course, being Sen. McCarthy. The real historical facts, however, are not so clear.
“Good Night, and Good Luck” opens with Murrow giving a speech in the late 1950s warning about the confusion of TV news with entertainment.
Cut to 1953 at the height of McCarthy’s war against Communist and left-wing security risks in the United States government. The newsmen working with Murrow on his “See it Now” news commentary show are itching to confront the senator.
At the height of McCarthy’s campaign warning about potential security risks in the U.S. Army, Murrow does a show about a young lieutenant mustered out of the Army because of the allegedly left-wing activities of two family members. Murrow does another program on McCarthy’s own speeches, ending with a strong editorial commentary against the senator and offering to give him a whole half hour to respond. McCarthy’s response includes an attack on Murrow’s own left-leaning political background.
The next week, Murrow responds by castigating McCarthy further and claiming that McCarthy got one of his facts wrong. In the wake of the controversy, Murrow’s show loses its sponsor and CBS cancels it, claiming that the show’s ratings are not good enough.
Filmed in black and white, “Good Night, and Good Luck” is well-produced and well-acted. Of course, the movie does not tell viewers that McCarthy had nothing to do with kicking the young lieutenant out of the Army. Nor does the movie show that McCarthy’s response to Murrow’s attacks included a lot more details about protecting America from Communist infiltration than just questioning Murrow’s own leftist political motives.
Furthermore, in researching this controversy, MOVIEGUIDE? could find no support for Murrow’s claim in the movie that McCarthy got one of his facts wrong, namely that, contrary to what McCarthy claimed, Murrow was never a member of a radical, pro-Communist, Marxist union group called the Industrial Workers of the World. In fact, Wikipedia on the Internet lists Murrow as a famous member of the group, but Wikipedia apparently is not always reliable. Be that as it may, MOVIEGUIDE? could not find a second source for the movie Murrow’s assertion about Murrow and Industrial Workers of the World.
Thus, “Good Night, and Good Luck” sticks mainly to the radical liberal, pro-Communist, revisionist version about the controversy surrounding Murrow’s programs and McCarthy. As such, it offers mainly emotional, bombastic arguments and lots of style, but not much substance.
Despite some minor problems with her book, MOVIEGUIDE? recommends people read Ann Coulter’s bestseller “Treason” instead. It offers a more detailed, better-researched and more well-rounded look at McCarthy’s career. Despite Coulter’s rhetorical flourishes, her book is a good, informative read. It’s easier, however, to have a rational argument supported by many facts in a non-fiction book like “Treason” than it is in a 90-minute movie like this.
The new visual medium of TV was not kind to McCarthy’s campaign-stump style of delivery, but the poor man was repeatedly vilified in the national liberal press, which instigated a congressional investigation of McCarthy’s probe of security risks in the military. Murrow was definitely a better communicator on TV than McCarthy, but Murrow’s tactics, as shown by this movie and tapes of his actual work, are just as emotional and bombastic, if not more so.
I’ve always been puzzled by the national news media’s fascination with these McCarthy programs by Murrow and his team. They show a tendency to editorialize rather than use hard facts and rational arguments, and an inclination to avoid honest debate. Ironically, the same journalists who extol Murrow seem to look down their noses at Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, whose news commentaries and editorials are far more journalistically and factually sound, though perhaps just as bombastic (in their own way) as Murrow’s.
We now know, of course, that McCarthy was mostly right – the United States government and many left-leaning organizations in the United States were indeed infiltrated by Communist spies and pro-Communist stooges sponsored and/or supported in one way or another by the Soviet Union. For example, at least one person that Murrow and American liberals defended, Laurence Duggan, was indeed a Communist spy and later worked openly in leftist, Neo-Marxist circles. We also know that a black woman, Annie Lee Moss, working in the Code Room of the Pentagon, whose famous testimony is featured in George Clooney’s movie, was indeed a Communist Party member in the mid 1940s. Also, Annie Lee Moss really did receive a Daily Worker at her actual address in Washington, D.C., despite her demure, intentionally humorous protestations.
It should also be pointed out that McCarthy’s usual strategy was not to openly identify someone as a Communist spy or a security risk, because he wanted the government authorities to investigate such matters themselves and decide, one way or another, by legal means, whether or not a particular person was indeed a Communist spy or a security risk. In fact, in the case of the Army lieutenant mustered out of the Army, the lieutenant’s lawyer, working within the law and with the authorities, was able to acquit his client fairly quickly. It is good that the news media brought the man’s case to light, but the fact remains, McCarthy had nothing personally to do with the man’s case, one way or another! Thus, the liberal, elitist news media tried to use the man’s case to conduct its own witch hunt of McCarthy and his colleagues and supporters.
Finally, please note that Murrow’s reports on McCarthy include little, if any, contrary arguments, facts or interviews from McCarthy or any of McCarthy’s strongest supporters. Neither, regrettably, does George Clooney’s revisionist movie. That hardly strikes MOVIEGUIDE? as honest filmmaking, much less as objective, fair-minded, fact-finding journalism.
Tom Snyder, editor of MOVIEGUIDE?, has more than 15 years experience as a political journalist. He has a B.A. in political science from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and a Ph.D. in film studies from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. For family-friendly reviews of current movies and tips on how to change Hollywood, you can visit subscribe to MOVIEGUIDE? or visit the website.