Thursday, May 18, 2006

Put Down The Candy And Let The Little Boy Go

Being on the cusp of cultural relevancy, I just recently got around to watching George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. Working nights means never having time to go to the movies but lots of time to catch up on Netflix.

Anyway. I was sort of looking forward to the movie and also sort of dreading it. The former because, well, I think Clooney's a smart guy (when he's not being inane), who's also incredibly underrated as an actor (despite the fact that he frequently works with Steven Soderbergh, who, Sex, Lies and Videotape notwithstanding, is well nigh a living black hole of suck). Based on his first feature, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, he's also a pretty good director as well (to say that Confessions is the worst movie to be made from a Charlie Kaufman script is not exactly an insult when you realize the competition -- it's no Adaptation but I quite enjoyed it, despite the gratuitous Julia Roberts-fu). But I was also dreading it because I hate liberal feel-good claptrap.

Keep in mind: I am a Liberal with a capital "L". But I also hate propaganda. And a movie like Good Night, and Good Luck seemed like it had the potential to be, well, a steaming pile of liberal warm and fuzzies. It's not like there's not an interesting story to found in the fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Army hearings, the Milo Radulovich case, and the growing pains of broadcast news in the middle of the twentieth century, but said story isn't here. Instead, what we've got is a hagiography.

Which is not to say that the movie gets its fact wrong, necessarily, simply that it plays fairly fast and loose with which facts to present and how it presents them. Film and history have a horrible track record together. For every film that gets the facts straight, there's five that play fast and loose and another ten that don't even spell the names right. The fact is that presenting data-heavy historical recitations is just not something that plays to film's strengths. Movies work best when they stick to a more free-form expressionist take on history, because the medium itself is hopelessly subjective. Trying to tell a larger semi-fictionalized story with anywhere near the narrative authority of a book or even a documentary film is a recipe for disaster.

Which is one of the reasons I like Oliver Stone's American history films so much -- JFK and Nixon are both excellent.The difference between Stone's history, which arguably plays a lot more fast-and-loose with the facts that Clooney does, and Good Night, and Good Luck is that Stone is pretty obviously presenting an extremely subjective view of events. If anyone watches JFK and expects an objective view of that era in American history, they're a moron: you need to know something about history before you can really appreciate the movie, to understand that Stone is trying to enter into a dialogue with his audience about history. Besides, you don't have to believe any of the various speculations that form the backbone of JFK to think that Jim Garrison's story is interesting and compelling. Most of Garrison's pet theories about the assassination have been proven to be flat-out wrong, but the movie holds up because it's not really about trying to hit you over the head with an ideology so much as telling a story about the way history and politics warp each other and the subjectivity of "truth".

But Good Night, and Good Luck doesn't seem to me like much of an attempt at a dialogue. It seems more like a lecture. Furthermore, it's a pretty cowardly lecture, because the filmmakers don't really seem to be interested in proving a point about Joseph McCarthy. They really want to talk about George W. Bush and Fox News, but are stuck fitting historical events into an ill-disguised allegorical mode. McCarthy, for all his rancor, is a dead issue: no one except the most clueless examples of the far radical right (i.e. Anne Coulter) remembers "Tailgunner" Joe as anything but a national embarrassment. It's not very brave to pick on a man who's been dead for fifty years: if you want to say something about the abuse of power in politics, the pandering of fearmongering conservatives and the spinelessness of the modern broadcast media, just come out and say so, for God's sake. Don't be coy. The Republicans sure aren't coy when they attack Michael Moore, but they're at least picking on someone who is, you know, still relevant to the cultural discourse as something other than a symbolic totem.

And make no mistake: the filmmakers' minds are very much on our present situation. They leave little indicators throughout the film that we should be watching the movie less as an actual story in and of itself than as a matrix of pseudo-ironic indicators. Sure, everyone smoked back then (Murrow even died of lung cancer), but why go to such lengths to fetishize the act of smoking, going so far as to make the trailing wisps of cigarette smoke downright erotic? If you're going to show an example of one of Murrow's famous Person to Person interviews, why pick the one with Liberace? Why spotlight an exchange with Murrow wherein Liberace discusses getting married and settling down? Sure, it's not like these events didn't happen. But all of these elements have been carefully chosen as indicators, clues to key the audience in on the fact that the events unfolding on the screen are supposed to viewed in the context of what the audience knows now, not simply in the context of the movie itself.

I knew what I was in for at the very beginning of the movie, when the events leading up to the beginning of the film were recapped in a slow text crawl after the opening credits. That's how Star Wars opens. What they were trying to create with Good Night, and Good Luck was nothing less than a heroic fantasy for limousine liberals across the nation, a fable from a "simpler" time, when liberals were muscular and authoritative and had the guts to stand up to power instead of merely towing the line and mumbling under their breath. Which is essentially what Clooney and Co. are doing here. It makes me wonder if in another fifty years, when we've got another authoritative right-wing fear monger in power, some "brave" liberal filmmaker will produce an oh-so current tribute to Stephen Colbert and his performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.

The conflicts at the heart of the movie are, more crucially, completely misrepresented. The potential and actual conflict between Murrow and CBS was hopelessly muddled. Network head William Paley was President Eisenhower's golfing buddy, and he certainly wasn't worried about any sort of vague repercussions from Washington: he was worried about the very real possibility of being disciplined by the FCC for violating the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine and its enormous importance to the evolution of broadcast journalism and Murrow's career in particular isn't even mentioned anywhere in the entire film, to my recollection. The Army never tried to strong-arm CBS into not investigating the Radulovich case: they weren't happy about it but they remained on civil terms with CBS throughout the course of the investigation. But most importantly, anyone watching Good Night, And Good Luck with an incomplete grasp of American history might walk away thinking that Murrow was overwhelmingly instrumental in McCarthy's downfall, which is just plain untrue. As is mentioned in passing in the film (but nowhere near with the emphasis it deserves), McCarthy had been facing tough criticism for some time before the first of Murrow's See It Now broadcasts aired. He had already overplayed his hand. His support in congress was waning. He was bleeding from multiple self-inflicted wounds. Murrow's attacks weren't insignificant but they were merely the loudest volley in a battle that had already been underway for quite some time.

But the movie gets one thing right: Murrow was, by all accounts, even to those who knew him well, a hectoring stick-in-the-mud. Which isn't to downplay his contributions, but really, beginning and ending the movie with his comments before the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Chicago in 1958 is just laying it on too thick for words: if there was any doubt that the movie was a lawn-dart aimed right at the heart of the modern journalistic establishment, these sequences seal the deal. Which is just too bad. The facts, in Murrow's case, speak for themselves and hardly need adornment. This isn't so much a movie as a jeremiad.

Which is not to say that it isn't a beautifully shot and superbly acted jeremiad, but it remains shrill and unpleasant nonetheless. Murrow is certainly a unique and important character in American history, but this movie isn't going to hold up well at all once the immediate circumstances of its release fade. It is much more a product of George W. Bush's America than Eisenhower's 1950s, and by refusing to accept history on its own terms it fails. Apparently both sides of the political spectrum can selectively reference history for the purposes of their partisan propaganda.

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