The Magazine

Ed vs. Joe vs. CBS

"Good Night, and Good Luck" and the perils of Hollywood history.

Oct 31, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 07 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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LET ME START ON A positive note. For a film made in the present climate that dramatizes the 1953-54 clash between Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast personality who pioneered the TV news magazine, and Joseph McCarthy, the Republican senator who gave anti-communism a bad name, Good Night, and Good Luck has many fine qualities. If you like rich black-and-white cinematography; precision-tooled acting (especially David Strathairn as Murrow); artful skeins of cigarette smoke; meticulous re-creations of early-1950s offices, TV studios, and hotel bars; and jazz standards sung by the incomparable Dianne Reeves, then you will relish every minute of this film, which was cowritten and directed by George Clooney (who also plays CBS news producer Fred Friendly).

Or almost every minute. Curiously, the critics have ignored this movie's most glaring artistic flaw: a subplot about Joe and Shirley Wershba, two Murrow associates who kept their happy marriage a secret because of CBS's anti-nepotism rule. This is possibly the dullest subplot of modern times, made even duller by the casting of Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, a couple who generate about as much spark as a Kent cigarette stubbed out 50 years ago.

Why include this deadwood? My first impulse, naturally, was to blame the vast left-wing Hollywood conspiracy. By wasting valuable screen time on the Wershbas, Clooney and his boys avoided dealing with other, less boring, subplots, such as the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the Maoist revolution in China, the perjury conviction of Alger Hiss, the successful testing of an atom bomb by the Soviet Union, and the invasion of South Korea by the Communist North. But then a quick web surf revealed that the Wershbas (now retired and living on Long Island, Joe after a 20-year career at 60 Minutes) were consultants to the film. So, perhaps, in exchange for sharing their valuable memories, they were granted the pleasure of seeing their youthful selves depicted onscreen. At the risk of coming off as a heartless movie critic, I must note that this pleasure is not likely to be shared by the rest of us.

But enough artistic quibbles. The reader is doubtless slavering for political red meat, especially since Clooney recently underwent the standard Midlife Mulholland Mutation from skylark star to activist asteroid. "He's really interested in politics and social justice," says friend and cowriter Grant Heslov. Last summer, Clooney attended the G-8 summit in Edinburgh, where he and other celebrities enlightened world leaders about poverty. To his credit, Clooney's modest admission that the summit "taught me a lot of things" sets him apart from show-biz know-it-alls like Bono and Alec Baldwin.

Please. Of all the political districts burned over by righteous Hollywood, anticommunism is the most scorched. Again, it is to Clooney's credit that he did not head straight for ground zero: the 1947-48 hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that resulted in the despised blacklist and the jailing of the Hollywood Ten--also known as the Unfriendly Ten (as in "unfriendly witnesses"). I believe it was Billy Wilder who remarked about these individuals: "Two were talented, the rest were just unfriendly."

No, Clooney went for the slightly less burned-over district of TV news in its early fluid state, before it hardened into the monstrous shape we know and love today. Not surprisingly, the red meat here is anti-anticommunism--or, if you prefer, red-baiter-baiting, performed at the highest level of photogenic integrity. The film neither stresses nor denies the fact that Murrow came late to this cause. By the time his program, See It Now, jumped on the anti-McCarthy bandwagon, it was already loaded with radio commentators, print journalists, and editorialists, congressmen and senators from both parties, military brass, and the Eisenhower White House.