Call me perverse (and you’re probably right), but I’m sitting here feeling nostalgic for the fifties, thanks to George Clooney’s new film about pioneering TV reporter Edward R. Murrow, Good Night, and Good Luck. If you haven’t already seen it, I urge you to see it now.
Here are some of the things that induced my nostalgia:
• Even a few commercial TV reporters having the courage to speak truth to power
• Even a single TV executive, however reluctantly, allowing network reporters to do it
• The sight of an attorney representing the U.S. Army (Joseph N. Welch, in the Army-McCarthy hearings that were the witch-hunting Senator’s last stand) vigilantly defending civil liberties in the face of government repression
• The wonderfully pointed yet subtle ways parallels are drawn with our current political crisis.
Last but not least, the look of the film itself makes a powerful statement. In luminous black and white, it offers a cast of characters who look exactly like real people, complete with the fuzz, flaws and wrinkles of ordinary mortals. Everyone looked wonderful in their bad haircuts and ill-fitting suits. This made me realize how–even in roles the audience is supposed to see as “realistic”–in most of today’s American films, the actors have been so reshaped and airbrushed with surgery and make-up, it becomes difficult to focus on their characters’ inner lives instead of marveling at the incredible grace of this one’s neck, the satiny smoothness of the other’s cheek, the sculptural perfection of that one’s abdominal muscles. (Ooops, I lost track of that last scene: what was Gwyneth saying to Brad?)
History buffs have a hundred quibbles with every movie, often stemming from the basic problem that a 90-minute film can never convey the nuance and detail of a book. Good Night, and Good Luck overstates the importance of Murrow’s role in bringing about the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy and gets a bunch of other details wrong too. But it gets so much right that I couldn’t care less about the rest. Some of the important political personages, including McCarthy himself, are represented by actual documentary footage rather than being portrayed by actors, a smart choice on both aesthetic and political grounds (as McCarthy caricatures himself, no one can accuse Clooney of a hatchet job). If you’ve never seen Emile de Antonio’s great 1961 documentary on McCarthy, Point of Order, this footage will give you a first-person look at political power run amok while you are waiting for your local video store to get it in.
In case you are at all inclined to believe the far right-propaganda that Hollywood is liberal paradise, consider this evidence of McCarthy’s chilling effect, fifty years on. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars, George Clooney cowrote the script, directed it and played Fred Friendly, Murrow’s producer; for writing and directing his fee was $2 plus scale for the acting job. They needed something over $7 million to make the film–nothing by Hollywood standards, indeed less than Clooney’s usual fee for acting in a major film. Yet, Clooney said, “it took forever; we did it piece by piece by piece.”
Yes, the fifties were almost as buttoned-up as reputation has it, and even in the subtle details the film portrays, you can see how the pre-women’s movement world distorted women’s opportunities and freedom in so many ways. The only people of color in the film were McCarthy’s victims, certainly not news reporters or TV executives, not even secretaries. So I wouldn’t want to turn back the clock. But still, my sense of nostalgia is grounded in something real. The scale of the public square was much smaller then, as was the propaganda machine. While far too many people cowered in fear of McCarthy for far too long, letting human damage and national shame pile up, in the end, there was a conviction that individuals could affect the course of events. When people who were not themselves the targets of the witch-hunters began standing up to them, they crumpled. Nowadays, it is harder to share that conviction, but I’m certain we have to stand up anyway.
Near the film’s end, Clooney includes footage of Dwight D. Eisenhower saying what’s good about American liberty: “Why are we proud? We are proud, first of all, because from the beginning of this nation, a man can walk upright, no matter who he is, or who she is. He can walk upright and meet his friend or his enemy; and he does not feel that because that enemy may be in a position of great power that he can be suddenly thrown in jail to rot there without charges and with no recourse to justice. We have the habeas corpus act, and we respect it.”
The irony, of course, is how avidly the Bush administration has pursued suspension of habeas corpus in relation to the Guantanamo prisoners and indeed, anyone declared an “enemy combatant” under the provisions of the Patriot Act. The President has spent a great many of your tax dollars and mine arguing all the way up to the Supreme Court that U.S. citizens can be ruled “enemy combatants.”
Eisenhower, who was president from 1953-61, did not exactly cover himself in glory during the Red Scare. My family voted for Stevenson and I would have done the same. But I honor Eisenhower today for his bravery and foresight in the “military-industrial complex” speech he delivered in 1961, the farewell address of his presidency:
“In the councils of government,” he said, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Eisenhower won the presidency in 1952 largely because he was identified in the public mind as a hero for his service as a general in World War II. But he didn’t check his conscience when he donned the uniform. He said this in 1953, during the very first year of his presidency:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”
Maybe my nostalgia is not so perverse after all.