Last night, I watched Good Night, and Good Luck for the first time since it came out. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did the first time. The screenplay is thin. There are lots of musical interludes and similar tricks to fill out the film to its short (for a drama) hour and a half running time. What’s more, the two main characters — Edward R Murrow and Fred Friendly — are the least interested in the whole film. I especially would have liked to know more about Don Hollenbeck, the liberal newscaster who is viciously attacked as being a communist sympathizer.
But the film wants to be more about the battle between Murrow and Joseph McCarthy. And that’s great! There’s a lot of wonderful material. Of course, there is a bit of a problem. Murrow is not as big a hero as the movie makes out. These concentrated attacks were in 1954 — well on the road to McCarthy’s downfall. Even McCarthy taking over the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was on his way down. Still, in the television industry, not known for its guts, Murrow’s work was laudable. But the film isn’t much interested in the politics.
What particularly bothered me was how the film danced around the central issues. This was not just a matter of simplifying the concepts for the screen. The film wants to tell a very simple story: McCarthy was a bad guy because he was going after innocent people. But that’s not the issue at all. McCarthy was bad because he stood against everything this country supposedly holds dear. In the name of stopping the country from becoming the freedom-destroying Soviet Union, he tried to turn us into the freedom-destroying United States.
The freedom to say what the powerful like is no freedom at all. That’s why I’m always so amazed at supposed truth tellers in politics. We have Alan Simpson who tells us the “truth” that we must cut Social Security. We have Obama who tells us the “truth” that black parents must provide better nutrition to their kids. We have Rick Santelli who tells us the “truth” that underwater homeowners are losers who we shouldn’t support. So these “truth tellers” are attacking low income senior citizens, poor African Americans, and poorer homeowners. These are all “truths” that the power elite want to hear. There are no mainstream figures who tell uncomfortable truths to the powerful.
The film highlights McCarthy’s attacks on Annie Lee Moss. But it is implied that Moss was not a communist. Well, the truth is that she almost certainly had been to communist party meetings in the 1930s. By Joe McCarthy’s way of thinking, that made her a communist—and one who shouldn’t be allowed to have a job, I guess. But the issue should be whether she was a traitor: was she working to overthrow the government by violence? No she was not. In fact, in 1954, she wasn’t even anything like a communist. But there should be no punishment for having heterodox beliefs. If Moss then or ever wanted to turn the United States into a communist utopia via voting consistent with the Constitution, we had no right to complain.
At the same time, today we have people very much following in McCarthy’s footsteps. Interestingly, watching the actual video used reminded me very much of watching Darrell Issa who now heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But apart from that, we have conservatives all over the nation who say quite explicitly that they are prepared to “take my country back” by violence. These people are very much a concern—or they would be if they were more than just talkers. Yet because they claim to love America—just as McCarthy did—they are somehow beyond reproach. I will only note that Lenin and Stalin doubtless said that everything they did was for mother Russia.
Good Night, and Good Luck glosses over all of these issues. And as a result, it turns McCarthy into an easy target—a buffoon more than a real threat. And it takes away much of the triumph of Murrow and Friendly. If a film wants to be political, it should simmer in it. This film tips a toe into the political water and removes it. Then it tips a toe into the personality water and removes it. And this repeats over and over again. If it had committed to either direction, it might have been a great film. As it is, it’s good enough but only barely worth the time.