George Clooney’s black-and-white politics

spiked-film: Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney's tribute to broadcasters who stood up to Joseph McCarthy, is a deeply conservative movie.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture

Good Night and Good Luck, directed by George Clooney, on general release in British cinemas from 17 February 2006.

George Clooney has come a long way since his pretty-boy days in ER. Today he is hailed as ‘Hollywood’s Mr Politics’ on the front cover of serious (and sometimes earnest) film magazine Sight and Sound, and gives interviews under headlines such as ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ and ‘Gorgeous George gets serious’ (1). The occasion? He directs and appears in Good Night and Good Luck, a film about news broadcasters standing up to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s (widely read as a clarion cry for journalists to do likewise with Bush today), and stars in Syriana, a movie about America’s reliance (at any cost) on Middle Eastern oil. Both films are due to hit British cinemas over the next two weeks, and according to one breathless commentator they show that Clooney has become ‘Hollywood’s card-carrying pre-eminent liberal’ (2).

In fact, Good Night and Good Luck looks and feels like a deeply conservative film. It tells the story – very slowly and slightly – of Ed Murrow, the veteran newsman at CBS who launched an on-air battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy, infamous for his crazed witch-hunts against suspected communists in the Fifties. In 1953 and 1954, Murrow (played brilliantly by David Strathairn) and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) used their popular news and views show See It Now to question McCarthy’s methods and aims. McCarthy and his cronies responded by making unfounded accusations questioning Murrow’s patriotism, even handing CBS insiders manila envelopes containing documents that said Murrow had been in the pay of the Soviets in 1935. Murrow wins through, and his politely ridiculing reports strike a chord in an America that had tired of the increasingly cranky McCarthy (played here by himself – brilliantly of course – in real footage from the early Fifties).

Clooney’s film captures a sense of paranoia in America’s newsrooms as McCarthy goes after anyone in politics, the military, entertainment or media who has even the remotest link with commies or inkling of being a pinko. Murrow’s calm and wholesome and oh-so-Fifties delivery (in one scene we see him interviewing Liberace, again played by himself in real footage, and asking when he intends to get married and settle down…) masks a behind-the-scenes fear and loathing under McCarthyism. One reporter tells her husband that when a friend phoned from London to ask about ‘this McCarthy thing’, she had to look over her shoulder before answering. Yet the film is so slight – so consciously unHollywood and deliberately slow and small-scale – that Murrow’s battle with McCarthy comes across as a kind of post-dinner party spat between middle-class men in suits. Clooney seems truly to believe that Murrow was an heroic figure, but presents his story with all the depth of a made-for-TV movie about a pupil standing up to a bullying and racist teacher or something.

The film is conservative in both subject and style. As some US commentators have pointed out, the film’s subject – Murrow – was not quite the lone, brave warrior against the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he did not single-handedly bring down Senator McCarthy. In fact, his broadcasts, which only ever questioned McCarthy’s methods, came after other prominent media and political figures had asked publicly what the hell McCarthy was up to. As historian Thomas Doherty noted in his book Cold War, Cool Medium: ‘Murrow was neither the first nor did he risk the most in challenging McCarthyism.’ (3) By the time of Murrow’s reports, the New York Times, the New York Herald-Tribune, the Washington Post and Time had all expressed hostility towards McCarthy.

Murrow’s big broadside against McCarthy, broadcast in March 1954, came a month after President Eisenhower had decided to bring down McCarthy, and after Republican Senator Ralph Flanders had publicly ridiculed McCarthy by saying: ‘He dons his war paint. He goes into his war dance. He goes forth to battle and proudly returns with the scalp of a pink Army Dentist.’ (4) All of these political and media attacks contributed to McCarthy’s downfall in 1954; soon Eisenhower was referring to ‘McCarthywasm’. Yet none of this context is provided in Clooney’s picture. The almost claustrophobic focus on the tense and smoky CBS newsroom would have us believe that this one TV show and its brave anchorman toppled McCarthy and saved America from irrational red-bashing. There is an element of self-congratulation here; TV and film actors, producers and directors (and Clooney is all of these things) like to think that they got shot of McCarthy, when the reality is rather more complex.

Stylistically, Good Night and Good Luck absolutely drips with nostalgia. It is filmed in stark black and white, with an almost myopic focus on the fashion and mannerisms of media workers in the Fifties: we get close-ups of runners delivering film reels from one bit of the studio to another and shots of women carefully removing their pinned hats from their heads. This is as much a critical reaction against contemporary Hollywood as it is an attempt to capture early-Fifties America. There are long, almost Pinteresque silences in the film, where the characters sit around saying not very much; Clooney says he did this consciously as a direct contrast with ‘nowadays’, when we have ‘our senses bombarded to hold our attention; but to me silence is the most riveting thing’ (5). Even the cigarette smoking, which is ubiquitous, looks like a comment on the staid worlds of TV and film today, where smoking is forbidden or only shown to indicate a character’s moral turpitude. Clooney’s film is clouded in smoke; Murrow even addresses the nation with a cigarette in hand. Imagine someone trying to do that today.

The end result is that, for all its arthouse credentials, Good Night and Good Luck is as nostalgic for a Fifties that never really existed as was Seventies sitcom Happy Days. Fonz and crew may have got misty-eyed for wholesome family values, whereas Clooney dreams of a time when men were men and journalists were brave, but both are dipping into a long-gone and sometimes mythologised past in search of a sense of moral certainty that seems sorely lacking today. You almost get the impression that Clooney is running from his own past as an action-hero heartthrob. Indeed, the world of TV depicted in Good Night and Good Luck can be seen as the anti-ER; where that hospital drama was (and still is) all continuous and furious movement, and neverending shouts of ‘stat!’ and ‘super-ventricular tachyarrhythmia!’, Murrow’s world is slow, quiet, reflective, serious. Watching the scenes of Clooney as Fred Friendly lying under a table, where he would tap Murrow’s leg with a pen as a cue to speak to camera, it’s hard to resist the interpretation that Clooney is taking cover from a Hollywood and TV world that he thinks has become too noisy and cluttered.

If Good Night and Good Luck is nostalgic for the past, then it is positively deluded about the present. There are numerous clunky attempts to link Murrow’s brave broadcasting against McCarthy with what is happening (or not happening) today. Clooney clearly thinks that America’s liberties are similarly threatened by Bush as they were by McCarthy, and that journalists, especially on TV, are failing to take a stand against Bushism. Indeed, he says the film is ‘all about today. That’s why we did it.’ At one point, Murrow rails against corporate values standing in the way of good journalism and says broadcasters should be more questioning of things such as ‘US policy in the Middle East’. Not surprisingly, these have been interpreted as attacks on Fox News today and the media’s willingness to believe Bush’s dodgy claims about Iraq in the run-up to the war in 2003. One online magazine even describes Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, those jumped-up right-wing ranters on US TV, as the ‘McCarthys of today’: ‘Bloated and bombastic all, they rely on lies, distortions and scare tactics to make a name for themselves.’ (6)

This is the stuff of fantasy. Where, in the early days at least, standing up to McCarthy was a seriously risky business for media workers and political figures, having a pop at Bush is almost de rigeur. Attacking Bush and his tactics will not earn you a black mark against your name or cost you your job or reputation; rather, it is likely to win you a big fat book contract (see Michael Moore) or a TV spot viewed by millions in America and around the world (see Jon Stewart). Indeed, Bush-bashing can be seen as a new form of conformism; often it is driven less by a serious political reading of and challenge to Bush and his cronies than it is by a kneejerk reaction against what are perceived to be stupid Bible-bashing voters who, despite being warned not to, had the temerity to return the Republicans to the White House for a second term. And it is those who step outside of this Bush-whacking consensus – for example Mel Gibson with his overtly Catholic film The Passion of the Christ – who, while not quite blacklisted, are treated suspiciously in Hollywood circles. Standing up to McCarthy took guts in the early Fifties; standing up to Bush today has become an easy and lazy posture rather than an engaging political endeavour.

Clooney’s film manages to distort both the past and the present. Effectively, he is attempting to use the battle over McCarthyism as a kind of backdrop to his own political proclivities today; an attempt to inject Hollywood’s contemporary Bush-bashing with the seriousness and gravitas it is quite clearly lacking.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

In spiked-film last week: Emilie Bickerton on Caché.

(1) ‘Hollywood’s Mr Politics’, Sight and Sound, March 2006

(2) ‘Hollywood’s Mr Politics’, Sight and Sound, March 2006

(3) See it again, American Prospect, 5 October 2005

(4) See it again, American Prospect, 5 October 2005

(5) ‘Hollywood’s Mr Politics’, Sight and Sound, March 2006

(6) Good Night and Good Luck: a must-see, People’s World Weekly, 22 October 2005

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