There has always been something faintly silly about Hollywood's worshipful portrayal of journalists. With the exception of such cynical comedies as Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday (1940), most American movies purporting to show journalism as it is take for granted the trustworthiness and good intentions of the average reporter. Not surprisingly, these films are usually the work of outsiders who know nothing about the daily workings of newspapers, magazines, or TV news divisions. Even when a branch of the media is shown as gravely flawed, as in Sidney Lumet's Network (1976), James Brooks's Broadcast News (1987) or Michael Mann's The Insider (1999), one need not look too hard to find the starry-eyed idealists in the woodpile, earnestly speaking truth to power.
If George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, a docudrama about Edward R. Murrow—the title is the catchphrase with which Murrow closed his radio and TV newscasts in the 1940's and 50's—were merely another such exercise in hagiography, it would be unworthy of consideration for other than its purely cinematic qualities. But Clooney, the latest of Hollywood's Left-liberal actors to go behind the camera and make politically oriented films of his own, has added to the mix a more telling form of idealization: in this movie, he also becomes the latest Hollywood director to make a film in which the truth about American Communism is deliberately falsified. Moreover, in a piece of bad timing, his film happens to have been released simultaneously with Bennett Miller's Capote, in which a serious effort is made to suggest precisely some of the inherent moral ambiguities of real-life journalism that Good Night, and Good Luck mostly overlooks.
What the two films have in common is the meticulous reproduction of surface appearances that is characteristic of modern-day Hollywood's efforts to evoke the past.
Good Night, and Good Luck is especially noteworthy in this regard. Handsomely shot in black-and-white, it duplicates with uncanny exactitude the on- and off-air appearance of See It Now, the CBS news program that Murrow hosted and co-produced between 1951 and 1957 in collaboration with Fred Friendly (played by Clooney, who also co-wrote the script). One might be looking at the same TV studio from which See It Now was telecast a half-century ago. Similarly, David Strathairn, who plays Murrow, flawlessly reproduces the familiar cadences of the newscaster's speech and even manages to suggest his famously saturnine good looks, despite the fact that Strathairn is far less imposing, both vocally and physically, than his model.
In Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman, like Strathairn a much-admired actor, delves even more deeply into the quirky personality of his character, the celebrated writer Truman Capote (1924-1984). He, too, has the difficult task of imitating his subject's distinctive and well-remembered speaking voice, which Norman Mailer once described as “a dry little voice that seemed to issue from an unmoistened reed in his nostril.” Hoffman's success in doing so without stooping to caricature is typical of his performance as a whole, which suggests Capote in all his complexity—and peculiarity.
Much the same can be said of the rest of Capote, which tells the story of the writing of In Cold Blood, Capote's 1966 best-seller about the 1959 murder of a Kansas farmer, Herbert Clutter, and his family. To be sure, Bennett Miller, unlike Clooney, has not gone out of his way to duplicate literally the world of which Capote wrote. The scenes set in Kansas, for example, were actually shot in Canada.1 Still, Capote is both sufficiently and specifically evocative of an America far removed from the present, and the viewer willingly enters into it as if it were the real thing.
On the other hand, many of the same things might be said of any number of recent Hollywood films. To replicate the décor of a New York TV studio circa 1954, after all, requires in the end nothing more than a combination of diligent research and painstaking execution. If mere visual verisimilitude were all that mattered, then Quiz Show (1994), Robert Redford's sanctimonious docudrama about the TV quiz-show scandals of the 50's, would be a masterpiece. Even a piece of acting as precisely and imaginatively re-creative as Jamie Foxx's impersonation of Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford's Ray (2004) is vitiated by the fact that Foxx is too often called upon to do little more than spout the usual Hollywood-style clichés.
The screenplay of Capote, written by Dan Futterman, departs drastically from this norm, not merely because of its avoidance of cliché but because of its emotional detachment.
Capote, for instance, is shown not as the fearless crusader beloved of filmmakers but as a hugely ambitious writer who sees the Clutter murders as little more than a heaven-sent opportunity to try out his own literary theories on the grandest possible scale. Indeed, he antagonizes Alvin Dewey, the Kansas detective in charge of the case, by assuring him upon his arrival that he “doesn't care” who killed the Clutters. To him, their mysterious deaths are the ideal subject matter for the “nonfiction novel” he has dreamed of writing, and in pursuit of that goal—which he hopes will make him rich and famous—he is prepared to do anything whatsoever.
To be sure, Capote commits no spectacular peccadilloes along the way to writing In Cold Blood apart from bribing a prison official, a transgression which may or may not have happened in real life (we have only his word for it). His gravest offense is to feign intimacy with the naïve Kansans who are in a position to tell him what he wants to know—and, later, with the two killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, to whom he misrepresents himself as a crusading journalist seeking to have their convictions overturned.
In fact, we know that Capote had no doubt of their guilt. Though he identifies himself emotionally with Smith, and assists both men in finding counsel to make their appeals, his real interest lies elsewhere: he cannot finish his book until they are executed, and once he realizes this, he abruptly breaks off contact with them. For all of his protestations of friendship, not to mention his claim that “the book I'm writing will return [Smith] to the realm of humanity,” he is no more truly interested in Smith or Hickock than in Alvin Dewey (or, for that matter, the Clutters), and the coldbloodedness with which he courts their favor is presented with a candor hardly less shocking than the murders themselves.
This is not to say that Capote offers a totally unsympathetic view of its eponymous subject. Capote is clearly tortured by the morally equivocal position in which he finds himself vis-à-vis Smith and Hickock, so much so that the resulting tension ultimately destroys him (though not before In Cold Blood is serialized in the New Yorker and becomes a bestseller). Even so, he continues to subordinate all other ethical considerations to the claims of his own unswerving ambition, and no small part of the artistic success of Capote derives from the fact that Bennett and Futterman never let us forget this. However fine the resulting book may have turned out to be—and the film leaves us in no doubt that it was very fine indeed—we know what Capote was willing to do to write it, and are appalled by the knowledge.
Not only is this cold-eyed detachment far removed from the partisanship of most films about journalism, but Capote is also largely faithful to the factual record of the writing of In Cold Blood. Indeed, it may be more faithful than In Cold Blood itself, whose claim to being (in the author's words) “a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences” has been substantially challenged in the years since its publication.2 While Bennett and Futterman have made no attempt to indicate the extent to which In Cold Blood departs from the truth, their dramatization of its writing, a certain amount of compression and simplification notwithstanding, is in most relevant ways true to life.
Moreover, the movie seems true to life, in that the audience has no difficulty believing that the real Capote would have behaved more or less the same way as his on-screen counterpart. For unlike filmgoers of an earlier generation, most of us have by now seen too many high-profile cases of journalistic fraud to take the work of any journalist, however celebrated, at face value.
George Clooney, in sharp contrast to Bennett Miller, opts for the traditional pieties of on-screen journalism, which are all the more irritating because of the technical skill with which they are dished up.
Like Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck deals with a self-contained episode in the life of its subject. In 1954 Murrow and Fred Friendly devoted three episodes of See It Now to various aspects of the anti-Communist “witch hunt” led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The most widely remembered of these telecasts, aired on March 9, was (as Murrow put it) “a report on Senator McCarthy told mainly in his own words and pictures.” The purpose of the program was to brand McCarthy as a purveyor of “smears” and “half-truths.” In Murrow's words:
It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between internal and the external threats of Communism. . . . The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies.
What was remarkable about “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy” was not the critical position it took—McCarthy had already been under attack by numerous other journalists for some time—but the fact that Murrow was using See It Now to criticize him. It had been the long-standing policy of the news division of CBS not to editorialize on the air, and though Murrow closed his nightly radio newscast with a commentary on the day's events, these “end pieces” were kept separate from the reportage to which the remainder of the program was devoted. Similarly, See It Now had never before explicitly attacked a politician, or advocated political positions of its own. In doing so on this occasion, Murrow crossed a still-bright journalistic line—in prime time, and without first seeking the approval of his corporate overseers.
In Good Night, and Good Luck, Murrow's actions are presented not as imprudent or inappropriate but as an act of high political courage, even nobility. At the time, however, he was sharply criticized by liberals and conservatives alike for having attacked McCarthy under the guise of reporting on him, thereby abusing the power of the press. Moreover, Murrow himself was well aware of what he had done and, by all accounts, full of misgivings about it. “Is it not possible,” he had written on an earlier occasion, “that . . . an infectious smile, eyes that seem remarkable for the depths of their sincerity, a cultivated air of authority, may attract huge television audiences regardless of the violence that may be done to truth or objectivity?” Those words would come back to haunt him after “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy” was telecast.
Murrow's doubts, however, go unremarked in Good Night, and Good Luck. So does the fact that McCarthy's witch hunt, however irresponsible in practice, was at least nominally motivated by the existence of actual witches.
As is now widely acknowledged by scholars of the period—and as American intelligence officials knew at the time—the American Communist party was used by the Soviets as an intelligence apparatus through which, starting in the early 30's, Soviet spies successfully infiltrated the U.S. government. Yet with the exception of one glancing, carefully unspecific reference to Alger Hiss, the script of Good Night, and Good Luck takes no notice whatsoever of this well-known fact. Rather, we are invited to suppose that the activities of Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, and other Soviet agents were nothing more than a paranoid fantasy on the part of McCarthy and his supporters.
We know better, but, damningly for Clooney's project, Murrow himself did not. He had been, for example, one of the most vocal defenders of Laurence Duggan, a State Department official who committed suicide in 1948 after the House Un-American Activities Committee revealed that Whittaker Chambers, the Soviet agent who was Hiss's controller, had identified him as another agent. Decoded Soviet cables made public years later proved that Chambers was telling the truth, just as he had told the truth about Hiss.
Needless to say, Duggan goes unmentioned in Good Night, and Good Luck. Instead, Clooney devotes several minutes of the film to footage from another episode of See It Now in which McCarthy is shown interrogating Annie Lee Moss, a Pentagon employee who worked in the Signal Corps code room, a highly sensitive area. McCarthy accused Moss of having been a Communist without offering evidence to back up his claim. Murrow in turn offered this interrogation as proof of McCarthy's irresponsibility—yet, again, no mention is made in Good Night, and Good Luck of the fact that the Communist party's own records later proved Moss to have been a party member.
Clooney's Unwillingness even to acknowledge such inconvenient facts, much less engage them, makes it impossible to take Good Night, and Good Luck seriously as a historically informed portrayal of McCarthy and his activities. But, then, that was not his purpose in making the film.
In reality, as Clooney has readily admitted, Good Night, and Good Luck is intended to persuade its viewers that journalists today have abdicated their responsibility to do as Murrow did.3 As he recently told a Washington Post reporter:
I'm not a journalist, I'm just an observer, but there are times when the media takes a bit of a pass at asking the tough questions. The bigger concern is when Judith Miller writes stories saying there are definitely weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq], and then the New York Times later apologizes because they say, “Listen, we should have asked tougher questions.” That's a dangerous place to go. . . . When I was growing up, my father's argument was always, it's not just your right, it's your duty to question authority. Always.
Here, Clooney echoes the New Left mantra endlessly regurgitated by aging baby boomers longing to assuage their liberal guilt by keeping faith with the never-to-be-questioned commandments of the 60's. Presumably it has never occurred to him, or to his fellow Hollywood liberals, to question the authority by which the news media offer themselves up as sole purveyors of the truth. Hence his determination to romanticize Murrow—and, by extension, all reporters who dare to “question authority.”
Despite his nagging doubts about the McCarthy broadcast, Murrow himself was given to the same romantic view of the journalist's calling. At the beginning and end of Good Night, and Good Luck, we see him giving a speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association in which he declared that commercial TV had a responsibility to explain the world to its viewers:
Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up in their wrath and complain? Would anything happen other than that a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country, and therefore the future of the corporations?
Clooney offers this speech, delivered by Murrow in 1958, as the last word on the responsibilities of the journalist. But in showing it without comment, and similarly recounting the story of “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy” without any explanatory historical context, he tells us far more about his own political beliefs than about the realities of network TV news. For just as Murrow blindly defended Laurence Duggan, so did CBS News besmirch its reputation a half-century later by airing a report on President Bush's National Guard service that was shown almost immediately to have been based on forged documents—a report whose timing was clearly intended to influence the results of the 2004 presidential election.
To watch Good Night, and Good Luck is to ask why, in the wake of such oft-repeated fiascos, anyone in his right mind would suppose today's mainstream news media capable of making “a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East” based on anything other than the unexamined prejudices of the journalists who made it.
What has changed since 1958, of course, is the willingness of a fast-growing number of Americans to continue taking for granted the objectivity of the news media.4 With the emergence of such decentralized “new media” as blogs and talk radio, it is no longer necessary to settle for whatever news CBS and the New York Times see fit to publish. As a result, Edward R. Murrow's successors do not wield anything remotely approaching the influence they had well into the 80's and beyond, nor is it likely that they will ever do so again. And for all the unabashed nostalgia with which Good Night, and Good Luck portrays those long-gone days, it seems far more likely that Capote offers a truer picture of the skepticism with which ordinary Americans now view the reporters they once trusted to tell the truth.
1 Richard Brooks's 1967 film of In Cold Blood, by contrast, was shot in the locations described by Capote in the book, including the house in Holcomb, Kansas, where the Clutters were murdered.
2 For a concise but thorough summary of the numerous distortions and fictionalizations introduced by Capote, see Van Jensen's “Writing History: Capote's Novel Has Lasting Effect on Journalism” (Lawrence, Kansas Journal-World, April 3, 2005, available online at http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2005/apr/03/writing_history_capotes).
3 One suspects that Clooney also had in mind HUAC's various investigations of Communist attempts to infiltrate the U.S. film industry, it being taken for granted by the vast majority of present-day Hollywood liberals that the only villains in that particular “witch hunt” were those ex-Communists like Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg who “named names,” identifying their former compatriots—most of whom were in fact Stalinists of the deepest dye—to FBI and HUAC investigators.
4 Significantly, Good Night, and Good Luck was bluntly criticized for its distortions and evasions by a handful of mainstream-media commentators, among them Jack Shafer, the press critic of Slate, and Stephen Hunter, the film critic of the Washington Post, the latter of whom wrote that the film “does a disservice to history: it suggests that McCarthy was an arbitrary sociopath disconnected from a larger issue. . . . But nothing in real life is ever that simple, and to pretend that it is has to be a lie itself. That's the truth that should be spoken to the power that Clooney represents.”