A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

A Great Night with Good Night and Good Luck

David Strathairn Edward R Murrow

By José I. Ortiz

Because we’re accustomed to a packed house at the Forum on Law, Culture & Society’s films and post-screening discussions, when I saw several empty seats on the chilly evening of October 22, I worried that I might have chosen the wrong night to attend. But once the evening’s film, “Good Night, and Good Luck” began, my worries were over.  I sat back and settled in for what turned out to be a truly outstanding event.

The post film panel was composed of the film’s star, David Strathairn, reporter Bob Simon of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” and Sam Roberts a New York Times editor and correspondent. Leading the discussion, as always, was the charismatic law professor Thane Rosenbaum, director of the Forum Film Festival.

The film is George Clooney’s tribute to one of the most revered journalists in our nation’s history, Edward R. Murrow. Mr. Clooney directed, co-wrote, and acted in this movie, in addition to helping to fund the film, which was made for under $8 million, a marvel of thrift when films’ budgets regularly soar into the hundreds of millions.

This is precisely what is right about this film. As a movie lover I’m one of those “cinephiles” who watch European films to indulge the side of me that wants a deeper, more “artsy” form of entertainment. “Good Night, and Good Luck” has no flashy flyover scenes or CGI explosions. In fact, the movie was filmed in black and white and made to look like it was filmed using a Kinetoscope camera, the kind used for Mr. Murrow’s own shows on CBS.

A very well spoken yet down-to-earth journalist who took his job seriously, Edward R. Murrow didn’t pander to his audience. When was the last time you listened to a reporter who was able to quote Shakespeare on a live broadcast and not sound pretentious? That was Mr. Murrow.

He hosted two very different shows in the 1950s. “Person to Person” was the era’s version of MTV’s “Cribs,” taking American television viewers into the homes of a different celebrity each week. In one scene in the film depicting an actual episode of that television show, Mr. Murrow interviewed Liberace and asks him why he hadn’t married. As Professor Rosenbaum pointed out after the film, Liberace responded by saying that he had not yet found his “mate,” quite conveniently (for the era) leaving out whether he was seeking a male or female partner, though Mr. Murrow probably had an idea.

The other show, “See it Now,” is the focus of the film. This was Mr. Murrow’s pride and joy because he was able to discuss the hot-button issues of the day and try to stir people to think critically.

After airing an episode attacking Senator McCarthy for the modern witch-hunt that were known as the McCarthy Hearings, CBS invited the senator to present an hour-long recorded response on Mr. Murrow’s show.  Mr. McCarthy complied, and during that show, proceeded to accuse Mr. Murrow of Communist ties.

During the panel discussion, Bob Simon, who surely understands the power of an hour-long television program, ventured that allowing Senator McCarthy to speak freely for the hour was a stroke of genius on Mr. Murrow’s part. “You know how the old saying goes,” said Mr. Simon with a twinkle in his eye.  “Give an asshole enough rope and he’ll hang himself.’”

The rest is history. Mr. Murrow’s valiant brand of journalism gave others (including politicians in Senator McCarthy’s own party) the courage to stand against him and bring an end to the hearings.

The film ends with what Mr. Simon said is all too common in the lives of great journalists. After losing a major sponsor, Mr. Murrow’s show was too expensive and controversial to keep on the air; as a gesture of friendship, William Paley – head honcho at CBS – cut the show’s airtime from a few irregular hours each week to just one hour on Sundayscut the show’s. Without “naming names”, the panelists agreed that many fine journalists have suffered whimpering ends to robust careers for networks’ financial reasons.

The panel came to some other disturbing conclusions. Sam Roberts pointed out that the reason we are amazed (via this film) at how thoughtful and intelligent Mr. Murrow was is because of how low the bar has dropped for journalists today, particularly television journalists. I noticed a number of middle-aged audience members who shook their heads in agreement and smiled, and I envied them for their memories of higher quality in television news.

Members of the audience, and even the other panelists, commended Mr. Strathairn for his riveting performance. A non-smoker, Mr. Strathairn, said how hard it was to depict Mr. Murrow’s smoking habits. It was amazing to me, living in a world where smoking is banned nearly everywhere, to see Mr. Murrow’s character taking drags on his cigarettes in the middle of his news reports.

Mr. Strathairn also shared with audience how much he’d practiced Mr Murrow’s “penetrating stare,” so as to get it just right, and how he’d listened to recordings of Mr. Murrow again, and again, and again… The hard work paid off.  He was nominated for an Academy Award for the role.

In addition to Mr. Strathairn’s nomination, the Academy Awards that year saw the film nominated for Best Director (Mr. Clooney), Best Writing (Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov), and Best Picture.  All well deserved.

Watching the film and then hearing from the lead actor and top practitioners in journalism today was a treat. The evening could only have been topped for me if Mr. Murrow had been sitting there with us, puffing away on a cigarette and sharing his wisdom.

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