Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Good Night and Good Luck

I've typed the first half of the title of today's post several times now, but today it made me smile, because "Countdown" - Keith Olbermann's nightly MSNBC news and commentary show is a direct descendent of the subject of today's movie, the great television newsman Edward R. Murrow.

Good Night and Good Luck

This was the film where George Clooney proved he was more than a pretty face and salt-and-pepper coiffe. Yes, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was remarkable, but it didn't put him on the directorial map like this film did. I understand that Network is one of his favorite films (if not his absolute favorite), and you can really see that film's influence on Good Night and Good Luck. I was very tempted, in fact, to include Network in this list, but ultimately dropped it. If you're looking for a good double feature about the impact of television, though (and let's face it, who isn't?), these two films would go quite well together.

Good Night and Good Luck follows Murrow at the height of his conflict with Senator Joseph McCarthy, starting with his defense of Milo Radulovich and ending shortly after the start of the Army-McCarthy hearings. One of the great, largely unsung heroes of acting, David Strathairn, gives a stupendous turn as Murrow, exuding more grace and apparent calmness under pressure than one man ought to have. Clooney is a supporting player, playing Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly. Other supporting characters are Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as a secretly married couple (at the time, CBS apparently had a rule forbidding two staff members to be married). And Ray Wise (who has been in just about every television show ever) is truly heartbreaking as Don Hollenbeck, a colleague of Murrow's who is repeatedly attacked by a reporter who supports McCarthy.

Just as All the President's Men shows us the importance of the press, Good Night and Good Luck shows us the power of television and the role played by the people we let into our homes through it. This isn't an underdog story, like Woodward and Bernstein's. Murrow is already a much beloved newsman. This is about the responsibility of people who have the ear of the world to stand up when they see injustice and abuse. George Clooney was not even born yet when all this was going on, but his father was a journalist and an anchorman and probably had some stories to tell about those days. The film doesn't have an air of suspense so much as dread - the fear that someone can create a trumped up charge against you for being anti-American - and ruin your life over it. Yes, Michelle Bachmann, I am looking at you.

Which brings me to the closest thing (though not really that close) we have to Murrow today - the aforementioned Keith Olbermann, who ends his nightly show with Murrow's old sign off ("good night and good luck"). There's plenty you can say about Keith, and not all of it is good. He's brash, impulsive, bombastic, occasionally sexist, and he's kind of an ass (and maybe not even kind of). He's far, far less cool and collected than Murrow, he almost only brings people on his show that will agree with him, and he's about as balanced (though slightly more fair, in my opinion) than the network he often ridicules and calls "Fixed News." But he's smart, he's great with words, he's funny, and he seems to genuinely care about America more than his own ego or his own "side." He knows what Murrow states in Clooney's film - that sometimes you can't be neutral, because both sides of an issue are not always equally right. Granted, he tends to take the one side approach more often than may be warranted, but he has never pretended to be neutral, and I rather respect that. And while I also respect the efforts of more respected television journalists to be fair and balanced, there's got to be at least a few of those people privileged with big microphones who are willing to shake America by the shoulders and ask them "Doesn't this make you crazy?!"

No comments: