Moral Cowardice in Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good LuckLast 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.

5 thoughts on “Moral Cowardice in Good Night, and Good Luck

  1. Avoid “Trumbo” for the same reasons. Cranston is a good actor, and Helen Mirren (as a Hollywood gossip columnist) is a brilliant actress, but the movie is mediocre. It basically presents Dalton Trumbo as single-handedly defeating HUAC with his moral courage. Gimme a break.

    Hollywood seems incapable of doing a serious movie about the blacklist (whose main victims were blacks & gays in government, or critics of Cold War policy on college payrolls. Not movie industry people.) “Trumbo” doesn’t even mention how Reagan became president of the SAG largely because of his eagerness to point out subversives. Too close to home, I guess.

    Compared to the high moral intelligence and complexity of a film like “Spotlight,” “Trumbo” and “GN&GL” are pretty weak tea. They have rah-rah heroic stories, though. Which befuddles me. Since the subject is already one most modern audiences know little about and have little interest in, why simplify the story for rah-rah purposes? You’re not going to make money on these films; why not do them right?

    I did dig Strathairn as Murrow, though. He was always underrated and terrific in John Sayles movies. (And if only Sayles would be given a crack at the blacklist!)

    • The film was well made. I liked it. And I liked all the little subplots. But it wasn’t serious politically; that’s all I’m saying.

      The problem with the blacklist is that Hollywood has never really gotten past it. Now it just does the blacklist automatically. Of course, it wasn’t forced to do it then. Hollywood is filled with cowards.

      The whole thing highlights the need for unions. Workers need protection against this kind of stuff. But the nation has been convinced that having a job and making a living is something that you should have to earn. Good God, it is now common for people to have to submit to credit checks in order to get jobs. It really is at the point of being like the banks of old, “We’ll only give you a job if you can prove you don’t need it.”

      • I liked GN&GL, too, especially the acting and cinematography. But I didn’t like “Trumbo” very much.

        Orson Welles ripped on HUAC collaborators. “They did it to save their swimming pools” was his line (I’m quoting from memory, I might be off.)

        I have no problem with cowards, as I am one myself. It’s essential that cowards don’t turd on others. I’ve never done so, and hopefully I never will.

        • There are different kinds of cowardice. I think most of the power elite are cowards in the ways that matter. The two days I spent when a very rich conservative last week involved almost constant whining about the concern of loss of control. I don’t have the problem. I haven’t lived a life that has allowed me the luxury of thinking I had control. So she will die with tens of millions of dollars because she’s so afraid all the time.

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