Set in the USA of the 1950s, it tells the story of an actual conflict between television reporter and presenter Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy, the arch-witch hunter who chaired the House of Un-American activities committee.
It is also a film about journalistic standards and ethics, with an implied commentary on journalism in the era of ‘The War on Terror’.
Shot as a docudrama in black and white, and containing a large amount of contemporary news footage, the film conjures up an authentic picture of the television newsroom of the 1950s.
Brilliantly acted by David Strathairn as Murrow, and a fine supporting cast, including director and co-writer George Clooney playing the role of Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly, Good Night and Good Luck is a riveting and entertaining film.
From the early 1950s Senator McCarthy had been in the forefront in forcing out of public life, film and media and trade union activity anyone who had left-wing sympathies, or even tenuous connections with radicals and communists.
In 1953, McCarthy overreached himself, turned his attention to exposing ‘red espionage’ in the US armed forces. On March 9 1954, the CBS programme See it Now, fronted by Murrow, attacked McCarthy and his methods.
This in turn led to two further programmes in which both parties presented their case. It’s widely held that McCarthy’s political demise, culminating in a Senate condemnation of McCarthy’s methods at the end of 1954, stemmed from his exposure by Murrow on See it Now.
The film not only traces the history of these programmes, but also the conflict within CBS itself. On the one hand, the film shows how the company had attracted journalists such as Don Hollenbeck, who had come from an explicitly left-wing background, and who was subject to on-going attack from conservative politicians and newspapers.
On the other hand, the founder of CBS, Bill Paley, grows increasingly wary of See it Now as sponsors start to distance themselves from the programme. Eventually this leads to See it Now being moved from its prime-time slot. Later it was to be ditched altogether by CBS in favour of The $64,000 quiz.
The film also begins and ends with a speech given by Murrow in 1958 to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in which he condemned television as having become “fat, comfortable and complacent”.
He also criticised the way in which television had become used to “detract, delude, amuse and insulate us”. The ‘Murrow Doctrine’ has become a benchmark referred to by many who, seeing the rise of Fox News and ’embedded journalists’, regret the passing of an apparent golden age of journalism.
For all its virtues, some of the underlying messages of the film are rather one-sided. Investigative journalism was not the determining factor in leading to McCarthy’s downfall.
In reality, McCarthy was becoming far too much of a loose cannon for important sections of the American ruling class – the army chiefs in particular did not want him interfering on their own patch.
Moreover, journalism doesn’t exist outside of an overall political and economic context. It would be splendid if honesty and integrity were the watchwords for all journalists.
However, they are employed by corporations that are dedicated to making profits and uphold a system, capitalism, that protects those profits.
As companies such as Murdoch’s News Corporation (which includes the Fox companies) now extend their influence into cable television across the US, it isn’t sufficient to believe in a ‘return to Murrow’. Even if you could bring him back, would any of today’s major news channels be prepared to give him a job?
Despite these caveats, this is an intelligent, thought-provoking film that gives an insight into the era of McCarthyism and the development of news television in the 1950s.
By Bob Sulatycki