I love this movie so much I wanted to go up and hug the screen when it was over. And then I wanted to sit down with everyone I know and watch it over again.
It’s a triple threat, and then some. It is the story of vitally engaging characters, of people of courage and integrity taking on a powerful bully — and the story of how seductive certainty is in an uncertain world. It’s a reminder of a real-life moment in history that has enormously complex resonance for us today. And it is sensationally entertaining, with dialogue so dazzlingly literate it’s like sending your ears on vacation. Yes, children, there was a time when people who were on television talked as though they read books in their spare time, as though it was as natural to quote Shakespeare as it was to know who Zsa Zsa was married to this week.
Director and co-screenwriter George Clooney plays producer Fred Friendly and David Strathairn plays Edward R. Murrow. Together, they created the gold standard for television news, producing pioneering documentaries like Harvest of Shame, a searing look at the plight of migrant workers.
They weren’t the only journalists to take on Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. They weren’t even the first. But that does not take away from the honor and courage they brought to the decision about how to raise their concerns.
This was a definitional moment in the history of television news. Unlike newspapers, television networks get their licenses from the government, and, in those early years, they were very nervous that appearing to be too critical of elected official might lead to retaliation, even being replaced. We see Murrow meet with CBS founder Bill Paley, whose support is exquisitely calibrated. The political and commercial viability questions are crucial. Murrow and Friendly end up subsidizing one show after the advertiser pulls out. But the journalism questions are definitional. Any story-telling, whether fiction or non-fiction, depends on the selection of details. When does that shift from reporting to editorializing?
Murrow’s controversial documentary was touchingly mild by today’s Limbaugh/O’Reilly standards. He just showed footage of “the junior Senator from Wisconsin.” He made it clear that it was possible McCarthy’s accusations that particular government officals were communists, and, if so, those were charges that needed to be investigated thoroughly. But he also made it clear that if we allowed those allegations to lead to abandonment of the core principles of due process, the damage to our freedom and our national character would be immeasurable.
Clooney recreates the era and the feel of the newsroom has a wonderful authenticity, with its whip-smart overlapping dialogue. It has an intimacy, too, a sense of a documentary filmed with a long lens, so the subjects lose any sense of self-consciousness. Friendly’s signals in that touchingly low-tech era are taps on Murrow’s knee with a pencil, as Friendly sits at his feet. The relationship between the two of them feels completely real, people who finish each other’s sentences and who respect, trust, and most of all enjoy each other.
Just as Arthur Miller commented on McCarthy at the time by writing a play about an earlier witch hunt (literally), The Crucible, Clooney’s story harks back two generations to tell a story with ripple effects and resonance that does better at illuminating and commenting on our time than any expose or op-ed possibly could.
The film takes some risks that succeed brilliantly. It cuts from newsroom scenes to stirring performances by jazz singer Dianne Reeves that complement and comment on the story. Perhaps the most daring is the use of real footage of Murrow’s “Person to Person” interview with Liberace, who explains that he’d like to get married if he found just the right girl. But instead of coming across as an easy “now we know” joke, it beautifully deepens the movie’s commentary about what we know, what we can know, and what we need to know about the people who influence our lives. We see the origins, for good and bad, of advocacy/adversary journalism (“60 Minutes” — produced by one of Murrow’s collegues — to Fox News) and of our celeb-ocracratic obsessions.
The film is shot in black and white, which evokes the era and makes it possible to blend in archival footage (reportedly, preview audience thought the actor portraying Joe McCarthy over-acted, not realizing it was actual footage of McCarthy himself). Clooney knows that the movie’s most heartbreakingly compelling moments come from the seamlessly integrated real-life footage. He keeps the new material low-key enough to stay out of its way. A scene from a hearing in which a former cafeteria worker named Annie Lee Ross is accused of aiding the communists by passing secret messages is one of the most unforgettable moments on screen this year. Ms. Ross’ quiet dignity is as beautifully portrayed as any performance we will see this year. And this film is as beautifully rich as any we will see in any year.
Parents should know that characters in this movie smoke constantly. They also drink (scene in bar) and one has a hangover. A character commits suicide. While the movie is rated PG because it does not contain any of the usual material that may make it inappropriate for children (the closest it comes to a sexual situation is a couple who are secretly married), the subject matter and manner of presentation will not be of much interest to children younger than middle school, and middle and high schoolers will probably need some background in order to be able to appreciate it.
Families who see this film should talk about how television has and has not changed since Murrow’s day. Who in your family watches thoughtful, sometimes upsetting documentaries and who prefers to be entertained?
Families who would like to know more about the era and people portrayed in the film can see the broadcasts depicted in this movie and more in the Edward R. Murrow Collection. Joseph Wershba (played by Robert Downey Jr. in the film) shares some of his thoughts about Murrow here. The speech Murrow gives in this movie is well worth reading in full, for the pleasure of the language as well as the power of the ideas.
“Everybody Loves Raymond’s” Peter Boyle starred as Joe McCarthy in a very strong made-for-television film called Tail Gunner Joe. An even better one about some of the same characters is Citizen Cohn, with James Woods as McCarthy’s counsel, Roy Cohn. There are many books and films dealing with the impact of McCarthy’s red scare tactics on Hollywood, including Hide in Plain Sight and The Front. Movies from Spartacus to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers were inspired by or reflected the experience of the blacklist.
When asked at a recent discussion of the film why he did not attempt to recreate the real Friendly’s outsize personality onscreen, Clooney explained that any attempt to portray Friendly‘s manner would have taken all of the attention away from the other characters. But families who are interested can see Friendly in his PBS series and the Socratic seminars he inspired.