Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Telling an Important Story

"We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn)

I had many motivations that led me to a career in journalism.

Personally, I have always preferred print journalism. I suppose that is because I've never felt comfortable in front of a camera. The immediacy of the medium, I guess, made it seem too improvisational to me, and being in the spotlight like that makes me nervous. I like being able to write, to sit back and think when I'm trying to put my finger on a particular word that escapes me at the moment — and not have that pause mistaken for anything other than what it is.

Still, I grew up admiring the newsmen I saw on TV for their commitment to their principles and the integrity in their words. When print journalists came along — Woodward and Bernstein — whose articles influenced the course of history, I knew which direction I wanted to take.

Sadly, too many modern journalists believe they must side with one political party or the other, that they can no longer promote truth and justice unless they are certain that they are on the right side as far as their chosen party is concerned.

"Good Night, and Good Luck," which premiered on this day 10 years ago, told the story of early broadcast journalists who didn't check party affiliations before taking sides because they were committed to principles that predated political parties.

It was a movie, wrote film critic Roger Ebert, about "a group of professional newsmen who with surgical precision remove a cancer from the body politic. They believe in the fundamental American freedoms, and in Sen. Joseph McCarthy they see a man who would destroy those freedoms in the name of defending them."

Telling truth to power is seldom easy — and frequently dangerous. It must have been especially difficult and risky in the early 1950s, when the story that was dramatized on film played out for real in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. McCarthy was hunting communists, both real and imagined. The time was right for such a charlatan. Americans had been fed a steady diet of anti–communist propaganda in the years since World War II.

It was inevitable that the journalists at CBS, especially Edward R. Murrow (played masterfully by David Strathairn), would accept the challenge and confront McCarthy. "Good Night, and Good Luck" told that story.

It's one of the stories from history that went undramatized on the big screen for many, many years. At least, I am not aware of any dramatizations before this one. It's like the original Nuremberg trial. Probably the most crucial postwar event, yet it went decades without being dramatized. Sure, the movie "Judgment at Nuremberg" examined the trials and delivered an effective — but fictional — story. At least "Good Night, and Good Luck" told a true — and triumphant — story (at least as far as the free press was concerned).

Interestingly, when "Good Night, and Good Luck" was at the theaters, I read an article about the assessments of viewers who watched the sneak preview of the movie. A distinct majority thought the actor playing McCarthy came across as being too mean. Er, uh, that was no actor. Those were actual news clips of Joe McCarthy.

Those clips were in black and white, of course, and the movie was made in black and white. I thought that was a good call. It almost gave the viewer the sensation of watching a documentary. If most of the movie had been made in color, it would have seemed terribly odd juxtaposed with actual black–and–white TV footage.

George Clooney directed the movie in addition to playing CBS producer Fred Friendly. He got an Oscar nomination for his directing, and the movie got a nomination for Best Picture at a time when the Academy had a maximum of five nominees in a category.

Ebert wrote that Clooney's use of genuine news footage of McCarthy was a "masterstroke." I agree.

"It is frightening to see him in full rant," Ebert wrote, "and pathetic to see him near meltdown during the Army–McCarthy hearings, when the Army counsel Joseph Welch famously asked him, 'Have you no decency?' His wild attack on Murrow has an element of humor; he claims the broadcaster is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the anarchist 'Wobblies' who by then were more a subject of nostalgic folk songs than a functioning organization."

It was important, too, given the years that have passed, for people who have no memory of McCarthy's rise and fall (and I am one of them) to see and hear him. So much of history seems dead to young people because the technology of the times did not permit the visual preservation of important events and speeches. They must be read about — and far too many people don't want to read anything more than texts these days.

But we have actual films of McCarthy that clearly demonstrate that he was worse than just about anything modern people can imagine — which is ironic, I think, since so many of the tactics that McCarthy used then are used today by people who would tell you they are the exact opposite of McCarthy philosophically — and so they are. But their methods are virtually indistinguishable.

There was a side story about Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr., who played CBS colleagues who happened to be married. That was against CBS policy at the time — I have no idea if it is still against CBS policy — so Clarkson's character and Downey's character struggled to keep it under wraps, believing that only a few trusted colleagues knew the truth. Near the end of the movie, they learned that their marriage was common knowledge around the office.

It was really the only subplot in the movie. The rest of it was almost entirely — and unrelentingly — about politics and journalism and the principles of freedom — which was fine with me but might have been a bit tedious for ordinary moviegoers otherwise. The first time I saw the movie, I really couldn't see the added value the subplot brought to the overall story. Leave it to Ebert to point it out to me.

"[The subplot] underlines the atmosphere of the times," Ebert observed. "... Their clandestine meetings and subtle communications raise our own suspicions and demonstrate in a way how McCarthyism works."

The more I think about it, the more I realize he was right about that. In a very subtle, understated kind of way, Clooney made his point with that same surgical precision of which Ebert wrote.

Ebert made another important point that I would be remiss in not mentioning.

"The movie is not really about the abuses of McCarthy, but about the process by which Murrow and his team eventually brought about his downfall (some would say his self–destruction)," Ebert wrote. "It is like a morality play, from which we learn how journalists should behave."

It reminds me of how my college professors insisted that we, as aspiring journalists, ought to behave. I wish more of my classmates had taken that to heart.