Before there was Peter Jennings, before there was Tom Brokaw, even before there was Walter Cronkite, there was Edward R. Murrow. Murrow made his name reporting for CBS News from London during World War II. Following the war Murrow's reputation only increased. He anchored daily news reports on CBS Radio. With producer Fred Friendly he recorded a series of historical, spoken word albums entitled I Can Hear It Now. Those albums evolved into the radio show Hear It Now, on which Murrow and Friendly would tackle a number of controversial topics. The radio show would soon be adapted to the new format of television as See It Now, first airing on CBS in November, 1951. By the mid-Fifties Murrow was arguably the most respected journalist in America.
The movie Good Night and Good Luck, directed by George Clooney, focuses on what many believe to be the most fascinating aspect of Murrow's long career--his famous See It Now broadcast on which he criticised Senator Joseph McCarthy. Director Clooney and his crew did a wonderful job of recreating CBS News circa 1953 to 1955. The movie evokes the spirit of mid-Fifites televison quite well. The sets look almost exactly like pictures of the CBS newsrooms from the mid-Fifties that I have seen. And the black and white photography only adds to the movie's authentic feel and look (indeed, I am not sure that Murrow ever appeared in colour during his career with CBS). My only complaint with the flm with regards to its authentic look is that there is one typographical error in the movie. The CBS logo displayed in the newsroom is in Helvetica, a font face which was not created until 1957!
What is all the more remarkable is that actor David Strathairn recreates Murrow to such a point that it is at times difficult to believe that it is not Murrow on the screen. Strathairn certainly deserved to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Lead Actor; not having yet seen Capote, I would say that perhaps he even deserved to win it. Strathairn's performance as Murrow is all the most amazing given that the actor does not even look like Murrow in real life. The rest of the cast do a great job as well, especially George Clooney as Fred Friendly and Frank Langella as CBS head William S. Paley, even though neither actor looks much like the men they are playing (both Clooney and Langella are considerably better looking that either Friendly or Paley were).
To its credit, Good Night and Good Luck is fairly even handed in its portrayal of Murrow. While the movie does portray him as a heroic figure, it sometimes shows the legendary reporter in a lesser light. In the film, as in real life, Murrow sometimes expressed doubts about using the medium of television to attack an individual, public figure like McCarthy. And, as in real life, Murrow is portrayed as a bit of a showman. While he hosts See It Now, Murrow was also the host of the CBS interview show Person to Person. The movie recreates an interview done on that show in which Murrow asks Liberace (for those of you too young to remember, he was a flamboyant, gay pianist) about his marital prospects. And while Murrow is not always portrayed as a saint, neither is CBS head William S. Paley portrayed as a base villain. While many filmmakers would portray Paley as a money grubbing executive who cancels See It Now simply because of the company's bottom line, Paley is portrayed as a responsible man who genuinely likes Murrow and admires the work CBS News has done, but also has concerns about retaining sponsors for the network and providing a living for its many employees. Paley is even allowed to get some blows in on Murrow, pointing out that Murrow did not correct McCarthy when the Senator claimed known Communist Alger Hiss was convicted of treason (he was convicted only of perjury).
All of this is not to say Good Luck and Good Night is a perfect film. Like Quiz Show (the film about the quiz show scandals of the Fifties), it does create some inaccuracies through omission. While the movies does point out that McCarthy was not the first person to engage Red baiting (the HUAC-Hollywood Ten hearing predated McCarthy by a few years), it does not point out that there were major figures who tackled McCarthy before Murrow went after him. Both columnist Drew Pearson and cartoonist Herblock both attacked the junior Senator from Wisconsin before Murrow did. And while the movie does make reference to Don Hollenbeck's failing health and the fact that his wife had left him, the movie could well leave some viewers with the impression that it was the attacks made on him by New York Journal American columist Jack O'Brian which was the ulitmate cause of his suicide (in truth it was probably a combination of many factors). Similarly, I think that Clooney could have done a better job of handling the bigger picture of the Red Scare. Let's face it. In the Fifties the U.S.S.R. presented such a viable threat to the safety of America that for quite some time fallout shelters were all the rage...
Even with its omissions, however, Good Night and Good Luck is a remarkable film. It recreates with a good deal of authenticity the look and feel of one of the most fascinating events in television history, and the man who was behind it all. Good Night and Good Luck isn't just for the television historian, but anyone who enjoys a well told story.
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