The 1950s are often remembered as an idyllic season of American history, a time known for white-picket fences, apple pie and heaping helpings of Wally and the Beav. Given such a portrait, it’s easy to forget that the ’50s were also a season of growing unease as the Communist threat metastasized and the Cold War deepened.
In the shadow of this Red Scare, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy launched an extraordinarily aggressive campaign to expose Communist sympathizers as potential threats to national security.
Enter Edward R. Murrow, a CBS journalist whose radio coverage of World War II had made him one of the most popular correspondents in America. In the early ’50s, Murrow made the jump from radio to TV with two shows: the celebrity-oriented Person to Person and See It Now, a forerunner of contemporary news/exposé shows. Good Night, and Good Luck chronicles the clash between this TV personality and the dead-set Senator. It picks up the story in late 1953, as Murrow’s dedicated team of reporters (including his right-hand man, producer Fred Friendly) debates the appropriate journalistic response to McCarthy’s campaign, which they believe relies too heavily on intimidation and is based more on hearsay than fact. The film depicts news agencies at the time as reluctant to question McCarthy’s sweeping accusations for fear that they would be branded as “taking sides” and for the even more insidious fear that individual reporters would end up on McCarthy’s list of Communist sympathizers.
Right or wrong in their pursuits, it’s clear that Murrow and his team are men and women who care deeply about the truth and recognize the real threat of Communism. And they are willing to sacrifice their careers and reputations defending the interlinked causes of patriotism, liberty and freedom of the press.
McCarthy is vilified for his methods. But he, too, is depicted as a man who wants the right thing for the country, and is willing to risk his career and standing to fight for it.
The movie also functions as an intimate look at the infancy of advocacy journalism on TV. Murrow is known for his objective delivery of hard news prior to his run-in with McCarthy. And his transformation from studiously unbiased reporter to deliberately editorializing anchorman helped shape the TV news we still watch today. That’s positive in this sense: It does us all good to examine our past and apply its lessons to the present and the future. The more we understand about the thought processes that serve as the backbone of the news we read and see every day, the more intelligently we can access it.
In a speech to his peers after the McCarthy controversy has concluded, Murrow takes the medium of television sternly to task for its ability to mislead those who consume it uncritically. He also lambastes the overemphasis of entertainment on TV. And, more politically, he argues forcibly that we can’t preserve our liberties by violating them.
One character jokes about how much another loves to celebrate Christmas, even though he’s Jewish. In Murrow’s interview with Liberace, the young pianist talks about his hopes for “a marriage blessed by faith” that will be “a lasting union.” …
… But historical hindsight colors those comments. And he goes on make a sly reference to himself “looking for the perfect man [just like Princess Margaret is doing].” Also, Shirley Wershba is shown in a slip and underclothes (’50s-style, not ’00s) as she gets dressed for work.
A character commits suicide by turning on the gas in his home.
Characters use the words “h—” or “h—uva” five times, and say “g–d–n” twice.
Murrrow, who died of lung cancer two days after his 57th birthday, was well known for his chain smoking. And the film depicts it with a vengeance. Murrow always smokes—even when he’s on television. The same is true for most of his co-workers. After hours, Murrow’s team frequently mixes smoking with Scotch at their favorite bar. Though none of them are ever depicted as drunk, it’s clear that the team smokes and drinks regularly together.
A featured TV commercial for Kent cigarettes mentions Murrow by name, and it talks about how effective Kent cigarettes’ filters are.
Joe and Shirley Wershba are secretly married. Because CBS’ rules prohibit married couples from working together, they hide their true status.
Good Night, and Good Luck is presented in high-contrast black-and-white. And that’s exactly what the movie is: a black-and-white depiction of one reporter’s willingness to stand up for what he believes in, regardless of the cost.
Did he believe in the right thing? I’m not a historian, and I wasn’t even born when this tug-of-war took place—only two of the many reasons I won’t use this review as a platform for commending or condemning Joseph McCarthy. For the most part, history has not been kind in its assessment that the Wisconsin politician stepped from vigilance into hysteria in his pursuit of Communist sympathizers. Edward R. Murrow’s willingness to confront McCarthy is widely credited as helping to rein in the Senator, who was later censured by his peers. I would simply point out that good men of great conviction have squabbled for decades over the rights and wrongs of what has often been labeled the McCarthy Era.
This film, however, proffers no such debate. Good Night, and Good Luck (which was Murrow’s signature sign-off at the end of his shows) offers director and co-writer George Clooney’s take on the historic showdown between McCarthy and the fabled CBS newsman. As such, it depicts McCarthy as the villain and Murrow and Co. as the virtuous defenders of truth in a David-and-Goliath contest.
Clooney has skillfully rendered this tale without gravitating toward gratuity, telling a compelling story while mostly avoiding the violence, sexuality and profanity that permeate so many dramatic movies today. The amount of smoking in the film is the only thing that’s excessive. And by using the Kent cigarette commercial as a kind of editorial wink, it’s as if the moviemakers are trying to say, Yeah, we know those ’50s guys smoked constantly, but this isn’t the right thing to do today.
Whether or not you agree with his portrait of Murrow and McCarthy’s battle, Clooney deserves credit for delivering an engaging drama without pandering to moviegoers’ baser instincts in the process. Good Night, and Good Luck forcefully demonstrates to me that it’s possible to tell a powerful story without filling it with the R-rated (or even PG-13) content that Hollywood usually relies upon to “enhance” and “legitimize” stories like this one.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.