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Laramie Movie Scope:
Good Night and Good Luck

Edward R. Murrow Vs. Joseph McCarthy

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 17, 2005 -- “Good Night and Good Luck” is a powerful movie about the behind-the-scenes battle at CBS 51 years ago when legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow decided to oppose Senator Joseph McCarthy, the biggest bully in Congress. McCarthy, chairman of the Permanent Sub-committee on Investigations (Government Operations Committee), claimed that numerous communists had infiltrated the government on many levels. McCarthy's “red scare” tactics led to blacklisting in the entertainment and other industries, the enforcement of loyalty oaths, the banning of books and other abuses of power. McCarthy was so feared that few dared to oppose him. Those who did oppose McCarthy's tactics, later to be known as McCarthyism, were denounced by McCarthy as communists.

This was the mood of the nation during the darkest days of the Cold War. Someone needed to stand up to McCarthy and Murrow (convincingly played by David Strathairn of “Twisted”) was the man who stood up when most sat on their hands. But Murrow could not do it alone. He needed the backing of his bosses, who all knew what a risky move this was and what a nasty fight was ahead. His bosses, news director Fred Friendly (played by George Clooney of “Ocean's 11” who also co-wrote the script and directed the film) and CBS president William Paley (Frank Langella of “Dave”) decide to support Murrow's crusade against McCarthy, despite a loss of advertising revenue when sponsors pulled their ads from Murrow's news show. Murrow and Friendly took the unusual step of reimbursing CBS for the lost ad revenue, which was only a few thousand dollars in those days, not the millions it is in the news business today.

The film does a good job of showing the fear that people felt in those days. It also does a good job of showing the tension and excitement in the news staff at CBS as they go after McCarthy. Some of those in that newsroom went on to become historical figures in broadcast news, like Don Hewitt (Grant Heslov), Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.), Palmer Williams (Tom McCarthy), Jesse Zousmer (Tate Donovan), John Aaron (Reed Diamond), Charlie Mack (Robert John Burke) and Eddie Scott (Matt Ross). It was a time when television was new and TV news was more about news and less about entertainment (although Murrow was forced to do a certain amount of fluff entertainment news on his “Person to Person” show). There was not yet enough money coming in to corrupt the news coverage. Murrow was given a free hand to cover what he wanted to. It was also a time when most TV newsmen were literate and had newspaper backgrounds. Murrow actually wrote his own copy. He wasn't just a news reader. The news team he assembled years before at CBS included such broadcasting and literary giants as William Shirer, Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevaried, Bill Shael, and Howard K. Smith.

Although it is mainly about the McCarthy era, the film also touches on the beginnings of the bastardization of television news, culminating with the scrapping of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s, which led to news propaganda networks like Fox News and Air America Radio and numerous political talk shows which have little truth and no balance. The film begins with a famous speech that Murrow gave at the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention in 1958, some years after the McCarthy battle. In this speech, Murrow outlined his concerns with the growing problems in broadcast news and warned against the growing influence of advertising sponsors and the weakening of news with entertainment content.

Although Murrow won his battle against McCarthy, he lost the war. His beloved news show was cut back severely, as the film shows us, and the show was canceled after only five more episodes. Murrow left CBS in 1961 and died of lung cancer four years later. Murrow was a chain smoker. The film does a great job of capturing the intensity and literacy of Murrow's broadcasts. Shot in black and white, the film makes brilliant use of period news footage of Joseph McCarthy and others. The audience is able to see the real historical figures alongside the actors. It is like being shot back in time and witnessing historical events as they happened. This is a powerful film. It rates an A. I leave you with Murrow's own words, spoken by him in a broadcast that aired on March 9, 1954:

“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.

“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.' Good night, and good luck.”

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2005 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)