Thursday, October 27, 2005

Wires and lights in a box

"Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live."

When I heard these words at the beginning of Good Night, and Good Luck, I naturally assumed it was the scriptwriter. But I was wrong. Google tells me that Edward Murrow actually said this in a speech at the RTNDA convention in 1958. It's been nearly 50 years since he made this speech and if he were alive today, I am sure he would be happy to know that we don't insulate ourselves from reality anymore. We now have reality TV.

In a country obsessed with The Apprentice and Desperate Housewives, in an age of embedded journalism, I wonder why anyone, least of all George Clooney would want to make a movie about Murrow and McCarthy. How exactly is he going to make his money back? That the theme is quite relevant to the present times where almost every other day we seem to hear of curbs on civil liberties in the name of national security is besides the point. Anyway, I am glad the movie is out there. Regardless of the unnecessary and probably unwarranted glorification that it indulges in, I still think its one of the best movies made this year.

Shot entirely in black and white, almost all the action happens inside a smoky newsroom, smoky being the key. For those of us born long after the hazards of smoking had been clearly established and smoking bans were put in place, the smoke that pervades every scene of the movie seems strange, even disturbing in a way. But it seems as if this smoke is also the perfect backdrop to convey the hazy nature of events that occured in this country and in the newsrooms of CBS for a few months in 1953-54. The movie traces the six-month period from late 1953 to early 1954 during which Murrow used his CBS series See It Now to launch an attack against McCarthy's witchhunts. A stoic David Strathairn plays Murrow brilliantly; his resonant voice transports us back to the golden age of radio journalism. A subdued Clooney plays Fred Friendly, producer and partner of the show. McCarthy plays himself - snarling on TV screens as usual. (For no apparent reason, I got a kick out of seeing the same clip I was used to seeing years ago in trivia events where they ask you to identify the personality!)

The movie starts with Murrow's 1958 speech, and then flashes back to drop you at the newsroom with no context, no background whatsoever. If you didn't know who McCarthy or Murrow was, this movie is definitely not for you. It then takes you through Murrow's(and Friendly's) machinations to get the report on McCarthy and his victims on air. At all times, the newsroom seems to be in a heightened state of tension which spares no one in the room. That you know what's going to happen to Murrow and McCarthy doesn't in any way dampen your interest in what's happening on the screen. What's different about this movie is not really Murrow's fight with McCarthy as nothing happens there that is unusual or unexpected but its Murrow's stand-offs with Paley, the boss man, and his conversations with Don, his mentee which gives us an inkling of how things are not as simple as they seem, and how there are more shades of grey than anyone would care to admit. Especially a Hollywood movie.

So what did I not like about the movie? Just one thing actually. Glorification of Murrow to the extent that an uninitiated viewer might be misled into thinking that Murrow single-handedly brought down McCarthy and no one else ever spoke against McCarthy. But as this is a movie after all, not even a documentary, I think I can be conned to overlook this one mistake.

Oh and before I finito, here are some more excerpts from Murrow's speech. I think its as relevant today as it was 50 years ago though you would be hard pressed to find anyone who is willing to listen.

"Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up in their wrath and complain? Would anything happen other than that a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country, and therefore the future of the corporations?"


"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."


gawker said...

Great post. Reinforces my determination to watch this movie right away. George Clooney, what a guy.

Anonymous said...

As a Hollywood movie, the glorification of Murrow is understandable, knowing that the movie is basically about him. However, the movie does show another journalist involved in the figt of Mccarty, the one writing in the times. Even Murrow, in the movie, praises him and says "he should work with us. - if we could afford him!"

The movie is definitely not objective, but it also shows that the downfall of Mccarthy was not single handed by Murrow. Other senators are seen attacking mccarthy's methods. The records of the trials used by Murrow in his campaign against Maccarthy are held prior to his attack. And in one of them, one of the senators is seen questioning their right to press charges against Ms. Morse.