Erin and I got some free screening passes from Salon.com to the preview of George Clooney’s new indy movie Good Night, and Good Luck (Salon.com review, The Onion’s review) , a look at Edward R. Murrow and CBS’ series of programs in the mid-fifties on Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunt. I had heard about the movie several weeks prior and was going to check it out anyways, so free tickets to the pre-release screening really rang my bell.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I learned in various civics classes that the Red Scare of the mid-20th century was one of the great travesties in our nation’s history. Somewhat surprisingly, I also learned about it from different angles. One aspect of our English class reading of The Crucible by Arthur Miller was the history behind Miller’s denuciation by the McCarthyites and how it influenced the work.
As I watched “The Crucible” taking shape as a movie over much of the past year, the sheer depth of time that it represents for me kept returning to mind. As those powerful actors blossomed on the screen, and the children and the horses, the crowds and the wagons, I thought again about how I came to cook all this up nearly fifty years ago, in an America almost nobody I know seems to remember clearly.
Fear doesn’t travel well; just as it can warp judgment, its absence can diminish memory’s truth. What terrifies one generation is likely to bring only a puzzled smile to the next. I remember how in 1964, only twenty years after the war, Harold Clurman, the director of “Incident at Vichy,” showed the cast a film of a Hitler speech, hoping to give them a sense of the Nazi period in which my play took place. They watched as Hitler, facing a vast stadium full of adoring people, went up on his toes in ecstasy, hands clasped under his chin, a sublimely self-gratified grin on his face, his body swivelling rather cutely, and they giggled at his overacting.
Likewise, films of Senator Joseph McCarthy are rather unsettling—if you remember the fear he once spread. Buzzing his truculent sidewalk brawler’s snarl through the hairs in his nose, squinting through his cat’s eyes and sneering like a villain, he comes across now as nearly comical, a self-aware performer keeping a straight face as he does his juicy threat-shtick.
The movie is essetially an office-based overview of the crucial segments that CBS ran in the early fifties that contributed the investigation and censure of McCarthy himself. It’s dificult for me to comment on the authenticity of the time period, due mainly to the fact that I was born 13 odd years after Murrow died, but it is certainly not the sunshine and lollipops 1950s portayed by so many. The focus on the Story and how the CBS team presented it to America keeps much of the movie focused in the CBS Studio and newsroom, which creates not so much a cramped feel as one of comfort. The climactic sequence where Joe McCarthy rebuts Murrow on his own show with such utter slander sufficiently displays the lengths that the anti-Communists were willing to go to in order to avoid criticisms, questions, or concerns over their activities. Moreover, the fact that Joe McCarthy himself delivers the false indictments makes the entire thing real.
One of the most powerful techniques Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov use is the lack of any actor portraying The Junior Senator from Wisconsin. All scenes in the movie involving Joe McCarthy are actual film and radio. Just as a period-piece retelling of Adolf Hitler’s life does not compare to seeing him from actual footage, so did Joe McCarthy’s angry polemics against ordinary Americans stir my emotions in a way that an actor could not. Perhaps its because, as a society, we’re so used to seeing evil and injustice portrayed by actors and special effects that we no longer recognize the horror of real injustice and tragedy. Moreover, the outrage that eventually bubbled to the surface in 1954, over people fired from their jobs and ostracized by their communities due to government hearings, is noticeably absent today while our government declares random people picked up in Iraq (whether insurgents or not) to be enemy combatants and thrown in a Guantanamo Bay cell to rot without any hope of a trial, or even of anybody to know where they are.
Better historical analysis of the Red Scare can certainly be found elsewhere, but my reactions to this movie had much to do with ruminating on the (completely intentional) comparisons drawn between 1950-1954 and 2000-2005. A government that hastens to call anyone that disagrees a traitor, embroiled in a war with no clear way to win, should not be given the benefit of the doubt. Were it my decision, everyone in America would see this film and be reminded that real, damaging political persecution did not die when McCarthy was censured. It can strike anytime the citizens of a country become too concerned with appearence and not enough about truth and justice.
We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.
–Edward R. Murrow, Speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago (15 October 1958)