Monday, October 10, 2005

"Good Night & Good Luck" is Bad History

Over the weekend I saw a couple of reviews on the news that literally FAWNED over George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck which purports to detail the fabled Edward R. Murrow's crusade against Senator Joseph McCarthy. It's useful to note that while the consensus is that the movie is well made and well done, Clooney has taken some significant liberties with history.

[Note, by the way that Jack Shafer's review ran in Slate, which is well, hardly, the National Review.]

If Jesus Christ no longer satisfies your desire to worship a man as god, I suggest you buy a ticket for Good Night and Good Luck, the new movie about legendary CBS News broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Good Night and Good Luck's Murrow burns cigarettes like altar incense.
Of course, Murrow was no god. Point of fact, he shouldn't be regarded as the patron saint of broadcast news his fans, among them Good Night and Good Luck director George Clooney, make him out to be. But the passage of time, the self-serving testimonials from the broadcasters he recruited to CBS ("Murrow's Boys"), and the usual nostalgia for newsrooms choking on their own cigarette smoke have puffed the considerable accomplishments of a mortal and flawed newsman into modern miracles. Good Night and Good Luck, a docudrama that pits Murrow against McCarthy, escalates the veneration to heavenly levels.
But it all goes wrong with the naive screenplay, written by Clooney and his collaborator, fellow actor/producer Grant Heslov. Plowing through the Murrow and McCarthy literature after viewing the film, I was impressed at how deeply Clooney and Heslov researched the topic yet dismayed at how they cherry-picked material to compose their sermon.
Good Night and Good Luck never comes out and credits Murrow with single-handedly slaying McCarthy on March 9, 1954, with his famous See It Now program, "A Report on Joseph R. McCarthy." But if you want to form that impression, the moviemakers won't mind.

In reality, McCarthy's takedown was much more complex. As the Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson wrote in 1996, "McCarthy had been hanging himself quite efficiently in the several months before Murrow offered him more rope." Ferguson continues:
But don't take Ferguson's word for it. The McCarthy program "came very late in the day," said one of Murrow's brightest "boys," Eric Sevareid, in a January 1978 broadcast. "The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy," Sevareid said, "and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late."

...Murrow confessed his tardiness in taking on McCarthy, according to an interview Gould gave to Edwin R. Bayley for his 1981 book, Joe McCarthy and the Press. "My God," he recalls Murrow saying. "I didn't do anything. [Times columnist] Scotty Reston and lot of guys have been writing like this, saying the same things, for months, for years. We're bringing up the rear."
Biographer A.M. Sperber writes that Murrow "was always uneasy about" the McCarthy attack, "almost anxious at times to disown it."...What bugged Murrow was that he had used a bludgeon, not a scalpel. The McCarthy See It Now episode...portrays the senator as the scumbag that he was. But it is a peculiar work of journalism—there's very little reporting in it, as the transcript shows. It gathers the available film on McCarthy and lets the man speak for himself...Andrew Ferguson describes the program's mise-en-scène as "a compendium of every burp, grunt, stutter, nose probe, brutish aside, and maniacal giggle the senator had ever allowed to be captured on film."

Give a skilled editor 15,000 feet of film of Barney the purple dinosaur and he could perform a similar demolition. Murrow makes no attempt to determine if there is any substance to McCarthy's charges. The program's manipulative and partisan techniques were enough to creep out two of McCarthy's dedicated foes in the press, liberals John Cogley and Gilbert Seldes, who shared their misgivings in Commonweal and Saturday Review, respectively. Murrow, who once said he favored "ringing a bell every time a newscaster is about to inject his own view," ended the program with a direct slam of McCarthy that could have set church bells pealing.
[Remind anyone of Michael Moore? ed.]
Good Night, and Good Luck's heaviest Hollywood airbrushing comes in its treatment of the See It Now program about Annie Lee Moss. In committee hearings McCarthy accused Moss, a matronly Pentagon Signal Corps employee, of being a member of the Communist party based on the word of an FBI informant. Her job in a Pentagon code room, in McCarthy's mind, makes her a communist spy...How innocent was Moss? In Salon, Clooney says the issue for Murrow is Moss' right to face her accuser, which she was denied. For the record, however, McCarthy appears to have been more right than wrong about her membership.

In 1958, the federal Subversive Activities Control Board reported that "the Communist Party's own records, the authenticity of which the Party has at no time disputed … show that one Annie Lee Moss, 72 R Street SW, Washington DC, was a party member in the mid-1940s." Joseph E. Persico's 1988 biography, Edward R. Murrow: An American Original, reports this finding as does historian Arthur Herman's 1999 revisionist account, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator.
If I judge it correctly, Good Night, and Good Luck intends to serve as a parable for our times and not a history lesson.

This IS Hollywood and Hollywood peddles entertainment and, of course, the issue du jour but the public should know that this is more hagiography than biography. By and large they won't. If you do go out and see the movie you owe it to yourself to read Shafer's column in its entirety.

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