Defending whose liberties?

Submitted by Anon on 11 March, 2006 - 11:53

Jack Staunton reviews Good Night, and Good Luck.

Although the focus in this film is Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts — the 1950s campaign against the US liberal opposition which branded them as “Communist agents” and tried to silence voices of dissent — the implications made by the film about the Bush administration are upfront and not subtle.

At the centre of the film is the true story of Edward Murrow (played by David Strathairn), a liberal TV journalist whose “See It Now” programme attacked McCarthy for his excessive interference with civil liberties. A case in point was that of Milo Radulovich, an Air Force lieutenant, accused of being a communist simply because his father subscribed to newspapers from his native Serbia. Murrow had been hostile for some time to McCarthy’s methods in hounding the liberal press, so the Radulovich case offered him an opportunity to expose the inconsistency and oppressiveness of the paranoia that McCarthy had whipped up.

Yet CBS, the network for which Murrow worked, and moreover his programme’s sponsors, were wary of Murrow’s rhetoric. At this time the Red Scare held serious sway in the United States. But Murrow’s damning indictment of McCarthy proved a success with viewers. The final blow to McCarthy’s reputation — according to the film — came with his own on-air refutation of Murrow’s analysis. The senator crudely labelled Murrow as a Communist. This according to the film (the real story is more complex than this) fatally undermined the credibility of the anti-communist project.

Clooney’s cinematography seems effortlessly elegant; the black-and-white film not only allows the director to blend in original footage of McCarthy’s speeches, but also creates a brooding atmosphere. A further classy touch is the tiny flickers of colour in the film — a lit cigarette, dark lips, a pale tie.

But this is somewhat marred by Clooney’s “actorvism”. Murrow’s speech on the necessity of intelligent, investigative TV journalism — “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box” — seems to have little relevance in the film beyond the director’s (admirable) wish to lambaste the US media’s sycophantic approval of Bush’s foreign policy. The film’s strapline, another Murrow quote, “we will not walk in fear of one another”, is again presumably an expression of disgust at the Patriot Act, which, among other things, gives the state sweeping powers for unwarranted searches of suspects’ property.

The film poses more questions than it answers. To attack McCarthy for falsely branding people as Communists is easy, but what about the real Communists? Did Murrow not think that people who really were members of the Communist Party deserved civil liberties? In the film, the CBS network president explains to Murrow that his failure to defend a genuine Communist from McCarthy’s witch-hunt is hypocritical — but this question remains unresolved, and Murrow’s halo is not torn down. Ultimately this leads to the impression that McCarthyism was only wrong because too many non-Communists were victimised.

Clooney’s film may well attack the administration’s persecution of liberals, and its harsh methods, but makes no effort to condemn the effective outlawing of the Communist Party — Stalinist though it was, its freedom to operate should be inviolable. Championing a liberal critic of McCarthy’s methods, demanding press criticism of government and attacking the current attempts to curtail civil liberties are easy and uncontroversial targets. A braver rendition of the Red Scare would have made the point that it was undemocratic to suppress the CP in the first place.

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