Good Night and Good Luck

dir: George Clooney
[img_assist|nid=929|title=Edward R. Murrow, where are you when we need you? Oh, that's right. Dead.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=343]
The most important aspect that a period piece has to get right is to evoke a sense of place and time. Depending on the time it is set in, an essential part of that is representing just how different that time and place were compared to the present day equivalent. It’s also handy when you can illustrate what hasn’t changed at all, no matter how much time has elapsed between drinks.

Good Night, and Good Luck goes a long way towards setting itself properly just through the use of black and white film. It not only convinces us straight away that we are looking at a slice of the past, but it also ‘colours’ the content, so to speak. Since the film deals with the medium of television as a newborn child, the era itself is defined by its limitations and the remnants we have left of their broadcasts in shades of stark light and dark.

Seeing the images here approximating the broadcasts of the time reminds me of the idea, used in many a sci-fi show, of early tv broadcasts being beamed out into the cosmos, the transmissions crossing the vacuum of space and reaching other worlds, or eventually being bounced back to our earthly realm. It is as if the images from Good Night have crossed the abyss and returned to us, depicting an almost alien world of eloquence and principle in the realm of television journalism when a society was going slowly mad from fear. Where the perceived threat of enemies outside prompted a society to start attacking the people within.

Edward R. Murrow was one of the people, along with producer Fred Friendly and the other former radio journalists at CBS, who midwived, breastfed, coaxed, scolded and long-pantsed broadcast journalism into existence. Even over half a century ago, the commercial, corporate and political interests were in opposition to the journalistic integrity and investigative function Murrow saw as his personal obligation to the people of America. Even back then he had to compete and accede to game shows and celebrity interviews in order to be able to do what he most wanted: tell people what was going on in the world around them.

These days journalists are, in the main, slightly less liked and less respected than brothel managers and drug dealers, politicians and real estate agents. But the truth is they were always maligned and hated for what they did. Journalism has a long history of being a mouthpiece for the powerful, for distorting the facts, for fabricating events and stories out of whole cloth, and for generating populist hatred towards whole groups of people.

In this current age, where over 60 per cent of a newspaper’s stories arise as a result of press releases, the media is becoming indistinguishable from PR hype and promotion. It relegates actual news to a secondary level of importance behind endless stories about celebrities rooting each other, having each other’s babies, or leaving each other and hooking up with other celebrities.

The media has lots to answer for, and often gets things terribly and tragically wrong. Still, the major reason for the distrust of the media is the power it has, perceived or otherwise, to get its message across to people. The powerful will always resent and try to control the method with which they are made vulnerable or made to look foolish. You can’t criticise power, and therefore money. It doesn’t like it. It makes it feel bad. And then it vows vengeance.

In this current age we see the culture war (between the so-called conservative and liberal sides of the political spectra) being fought most fiercely in papers, on prime time current affairs programs, on cable news programs, and the nascent blogosphere. It has rendered the media arena of ideas little different from the feuds and fights of professional wrestling.

And another thing, What Are You Going To Do, When Hulkamania Runs Wild Over You?

One of the many points the film makes is that the battle isn’t recent, it didn’t start with the internet, and it’s unlikely to ever end. Even the methods and the rhetoric are the same, the players paint themselves as the virtuous, and their enemy as traitors, scoundrels and pederasts.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, as they say.

In the 50s, Senator Joseph McCarthy crowned himself the Witchfinder General and launched a crusade to weed out the Communist sympathisers in the great nation of those United States. To do this he decided there was no technique or method, innuendo or slur too unfair or inappropriate to use in his divinely-inspired struggle against the Red Menace. As with most witchhunts, since witches don’t actually exist (I’m not insulting the followers of the Wiccan Way, I hope), a lot of innocent people get burned.

Murrow, in a time before ratings justified controversial stunts in current affairs broadcasting, thought what McCarthy and his stooges like Roy Cohn was despicable, and decided to call him on it. It was one of the first times that a television news program took on the political apparatus of a country for the public good.

And this film is all about that. It’s not, as I had mistakenly believed, a biopic of Edward R. Murrow’s life and times. It’s more a snapshot of the era, and of the men who created the field of investigative journalism in their own image, foremost of whom is still one of their most respected icons.

Look, I’m sure Murrow still took dumps, perhaps kicked the dog every now and then, and was probably selfish in bed. He’s hardly a saint, and David Strathairn, in a great performance, plays him as a real person and an icon instead of a holy figure. Still, he seems to have been, for a chainsmoker (and everyone in the film chainsmokes and drinks whisky all the time), a man of remarkable energy, intelligence and honourable principle, something which does not exist on television anywhere in the known world anymore.

Strathairn’s pieces to camera, giving some of Murrow’s famous broadcasts, are uncannily similar to the originals, almost to a goosebumps-inducing level. His body language and intonation are like an alien tongue. It’s remarkable to see how different the level of discourse has changed over the decades from how the medium started, to what it is now. As a comparison, the man’s pieces were like Shakespeare, compared to the modern day equivalent of news which is more akin to the scripts from Home and Away.

It comes through in the film. The difference in the environment, the different ethos and dynamics are nicely represented. There aren’t too many examples of anachronistic language or concepts grafted onto the story, which is good enough in itself to be worthy of interest.

Interest to a limited amount of people, to be honest. The audience for this is very limited. Most Australians will never have heard of Edward R. Murrow, would know in passing about the 50s Commie persecutions, but not really know why a film about such a guy would be worth making. Clearly, the real audience for this is other journalists.

Journalists love films about crusading journalists. They love films about the media full stop. They especially like films where the powerful are undone by the efforts of dauntless, fearless reporters.

All the Presidents Men about Woodward and Bernstein and their efforts bringing done the evil Nixon beast, who was straight out of the Book of Revelation, if I remember correctly. Also, there was something about them Deep Throating someone to get the information. I’m a bit hazy on the details.

There’s The Insider, a great Michael Mann film where Al Pacino and Rusty Crowe get to overact for two and half hours about the ethics of the media and overacting. Anything that depicts journos and reporters as the wonderful beings they are gets a nod. Anything that adds to the mythology of journalism is a bonus.

And Good Night, and Good Luck, which was Murrow’s sign-off as well as the title of this here agreeable flick, will become part of that pantheon of hagiography. It embellishes and warns of the battle still raging between the powers that be, and the powers that would like to be. It also contends that good journalism and commercial interests are virtually incompatible. And it also shows that no-one is more hated by the powerful than an honest man who won’t bow to political and financial pressure.

Well-directed, well-acted, the awards the film has garnered undermines the fact that it’s a modest, low-key film. Only George Clooney’s name and the subject matter got it into theatres, whereas it would have been destined, ironically enough, solely for the television screen.

7 times I was inspired to become a journalist from watching episodes of Monkey out of 10

"Good night and good luck." - Good Night and Good Luck