JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) directing/producing his television show The Dating Game.

Barris as a Central Intelligence Agency operative.

For the film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind Clooney captures the audacious spirit and color palette of the 1960s in the United States.

Barris weighs his options after being enlisted by the CIA as a hit man.

Film poster

Images from Good Night and Good Luck

Film poster

David Straithairn as Edward R. Murrow, the crusading journalist of the 1940s and 50s .

The script details the working relations between Murrow and Fred Friendly (played by Clooney), Murrow’s friend and producer. The mise-en-scene's meticulous historical visuals include the bulky cameras used in the production of U.S. 50s television.

Clooney directs a film which is a meditation on the influences of corporate capitalism on U.S. journalism.

A behind-the-scenes photo showing the care that cinematographer Robert Elswit undertook to make sure the film consistently had the look and feel of a 1950s film or television broadcast.

In a male-oriented, smoked filled workplace, Murrow's team screen footage from the McCarthy hearings.

The network also exercised control over employees' domestic life. A subplot about Joe (Robert Downey Jr.) and Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) Wersheba shows the effects of McCarthy’s hearings and the network's corporate policies on their careers and marriage.

In this photo we see Edward R. Murrow the historical figure surrounded by the tools of his trade in the 1950s.

Straithairn captures the same pose as the historical Murrow.

The film presents a speech Murrow gave at the Radio Television dinner in 1958 decrying the influences of corporate capital on the news. He criticizes television's need for ratings and entertainment vs. the public good.

The reasons for this layered strategy in storytelling are multifaceted. It allows viewers to create their own reading of the film. For some viewers the film may serve as an example of a bio-pic that provides insight into a public figure’s life. For others it may serve as mainly entertainment, especially because of considering game shows and a peculiar man, Barris. However, the film can also function as a source of critique and criticism for those who wish to view it as a type of political statement against U.S. Cold War politics and broadcast television. Thus it can be argued that the film demonstrates “the basic constellation of the social law as that of the ‘Law’ in general and its obscene superego underside in particular.”[13][open endnotes in new window] In other words, the society (Law) does not reveal to the people the inconsistencies that plague it. U.S. television, like the "Law" relies on many American’s inability to understand that

“our television system is organized as three markets that exclude viewers. In the first market, national advertisers pay networks and cable channels for access to consumers— people with disposable income, desire, and retail access to buy brand name goods loyally and impulsively.”[14]

Clooney’s own work in the television industry most likely made him aware of these structures and how they impact those at home watching television. He points toward this misunderstanding of how television functions in the United States in the film.

This is emphasized when Clooney depicts Barris’ involvement with television in New York, using a crane to capture the shot all in one lengthy, fluid movement. The scene opens with NBC’s trademark, in the middle of the upper half of the frame. The camera holds the image for five seconds before panning down to reveal the inside of NBC’s corporate headquarters in New York. This reference to NBC is a way for Clooney to recognize the very network that gave him his break with E.R. and to critique its business practices at the same time.

Clooney depicts a guided tour of the facilities in New York and within the tour group is Chuck Barris. The female guide speaks the corporate speak of the network and its sponsors:

“We [NBC] began making commercial broadcasts in 1941 and in 1953 NBC made its first ever color telecast by a network during the Colgate comedy hour.”

The guide's use of "we" demonstrates how she as a paid employee feels that she is part of the corporate structure of television but her own feelings and desires are not part of the equation when it comes to deciding what is aired on U.S. television. Also later within this brief speech, we see how the structure of television from the 1950s to the present has changed. At one time programs were sponsored by companies such as Colgate, Lux soap, and ALCOAA, a strategy that was adopted from the days of radio’s dominance. In taking both the viewer and Barris through the headquarters of NBC (one of the original major radio broadcasters) Clooney shows how the medium of television simply carried over old methods rather than formulating new ones because the programs function as entertainment and advertising, much like when the major form of entertainment in U.S. homes was delivered courtesy of the radio, whereas today it is the slots between shows and during breaks that serve to sell the consumer goods.

Barris then breaks away from the group. We hear him ask, “Do you know where I can apply to be an NBC page?” Then in a very skillful move, Clooney continues the action, only now we see the female tour guide selling NBC’s line-up of shows (The Nat King Cole Show, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.) to another group of visitors, this followed by her celebratory endorsement of “my personal favorite, The Lux Show, starring Rosemary Clooney, Thursdays at 10 pm.” Clooney here pays respect to his aunt by referencing her relationship to NBC, and the title The Lux Show also shows how corporate capitalism affected the music industry as well as that of television.

In the next set-up within this long shot, Barris is shown as an NBC page giving a tour and promoting the NBC lineup. However, unlike the female guide, Barris does not adopt corporate rhetoric and its usage of the word "we." Instead, he tries to legitimize his own actions and aspirations by convincing the group that he is leading of his importance: “Steve Allen got his start in entertainment as an NBC page.” This moment allows Clooney to show the viewer that Barris is never going to be someone who settles for an ordinary job and may be seeing himself as the next come-from-the-bottom network success.

Another way in which Clooney is able to convey this idea about his subject is through the use of actual interviews with people who knew Barris, such as Dick Clark, Jaye P. Morgan, a Gong Show regular, and Jim Lange. This technique Clooney adopts from Warren Beatty, who in his film Reds (1981) used actual interviews of people that knew John Reed to structure and comment on the narrative. Like Reds, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind begins with interview footage, in this case Dick Clark discussing Barris:

“I would not want to live his life, because he hasn’t been happy all his life. All I think is that if you can find work, stay healthy, find someone to share it with, this is the ultimate success.”

With Dick Clark's few words, Clooney sets up the film and more importantly uses an U.S. icon to capture the myth behind the "American Dream" and that of television and television personalities. Barris is not someone who will merely follow the leader; he wants to be the leader and create his own space or relevance in television.

Jaye P. Morgan elaborates upon the notion of his importance:

“He loved the show you know, because it was crazy and we could do anything we wanted to, sort of.”

Her reservations about Barris’ creativity and ability to challenge the status quo of the TV industry are also addressed in script developments, as when Clooney depicts him trying to pitch the Dating Game to ABC. In voice-over narration we hear Barris say,

“I believe there is a great future in game shows. Everyone loves game shows… I’m on my way.”

Prior to this statement, we see tightly framed eyes, those of Barris (this is reminiscent of Wertmuller’s 7 Beauties and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns). The camera pulls back to reveal Barris holding a model of the set for his show as he explains it to the network execs.

“I call it The Dating Game. That’s what it’s about, Mr. Goldberg. A pretty girl asks three handsome guys, who she can’t see, silly questions and based on their answers, she picks one to date. And we pay for the date. That’s it. That’s the show.”

In the following shot we see a nondescript office building. Then Clooney slowly dollies in on the logo of ABC (which was a network formed exclusively for the television industry), again holding the camera on the image for five to ten seconds before panning down to show Barris’ jubilant display, as he proclaims to the world that he has been given the Green Light to make a pilot.

Barris gets the pilot made, believing that he is off to the races with his career. Then Clooney allows the viewer to see how things really work in the corporate boardrooms. There is a shot of a mammoth boardroom in which there is a table that seems to stretch towards infinity. The camera tracks back to reveal the men sitting around the table, and as it moves we hear all the voices voting "No" on Barris’ program. This is followed by the president of the network saying, “Okay, let’s lose it.” They then move to talking about the bright prospects of a show called Hootenanny.

Later in the film, when we see Barris offered a second opportunity to film his “baby,” Clooney illustrates the hypocrisies of broadcast television. After taping several episodes, Barris is shown with executives trying to defend what has happened with his show. The president of the network tells him, “Chuck, quite frankly these episodes are unairable.”

Barris responds, “Larry, the show is spontaneous, it’s unscripted. That’s its charm. I can’t help what people say.”

To which Goldberg replies “We can’t have this stuff on television. If you can’t retain your spontaneity without this lewd conduct, it’s over. It’s finished and you’re history.”

The sequence shows how it is the illusion of free speech that must be maintained not the actual process, a point that Clooney will further explore in Good Night and Good Luck. The ramifications of free speech are crystallized when we see a member of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) brief contestants on the The Dating Game about what will happen if they display so-called lewd behavior. He says:

 “ … it is a federal offense to make lascivious remarks on a television network broadcast. The penalty for this disgusting, un-American behavior is one year in prison or 10,000 dollar fine or both. Anyone making a sick subversive remark will be immediately arrested and booked under edict 364 of the broadcasting act of 1963. It will be just you and me, no witnesses and it is a long way to that prison.”

Located within this official discourse is the film's historical setting of 1964, with U.S. culture quickly shifting as a result of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and a raised political awareness of women's capabilities while trying to hold onto Victorian morals.[15] In addition to this, I as a viewer now read this speech in terms of the events after 9/11 when public figures who began to ask questions about the how and whys of the event were labeled un-American, calling to mind another dark period in U.S. history, the Vietnam era, which may serve to explain our current status, as well as calling to mind the Cold War era and McCarthyism.

These themes of the illusions of free speech, trash vs. quality TV programming, a mythos of U.S. public and political figures, and the effects of corporate capitalism would be familiar territory that Clooney would again explore in his second film.

Good Night and Good Luck

Good Night and Good Luck is the story of television journalism in the 1950s represented by the beliefs and actions of Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) and Murrow’s friend and produce Fred W. Friendly (played by George Clooney) in the news division of CBS as they challenge Joseph McCarthy. The film uses footage of the real McCarthy rather than an actor and of his anti-Communist senate hearings in 1953 and 1954. These legendary hearings are shown to have been a type of political witch hunt. The film takes actual footage of the hearings broadcast on U.S. television (these were the first televised Congressional hearings) to illustrate how McCarthy’s actions were nothing more than political farce and machinations. For example, Clooney uses the actual footage of the moment when McCarthy first accused an African American cleaning lady of being a Communist spy and then left the proceedings after he discovered that his information and suspicions of this woman were in fact unfounded. Realizing this, rather than stop the hearing, he simply excused himself claiming that he had an important vote to cast in the senate.

To further illustrate the effects of McCarthyism and 50s corporate capitalism on people's lives at the time, Clooney includes the story of a real life husband and wife, Joe and Shirley Wershba (played by Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) who had to hide their marriage from the executives at CBS to protect their jobs since CBS had a corporate policy that no two employees be romantically involved. Clooney uses another member of the CBS news division, Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), to depict how McCarthy and his ilk used a culture of lies to destroy people and institutions.

Embedded within this portrait of the "Red Scare" and 1950s conformity is the story of how one man made a difference at a time when others were afraid to speak out against McCarthy’s disregard for the U.S. Constitution. The plotline of the film is as follows: Using the news program See It Now, Murrow and Friendly report on and critique McCarthy's actions, a move that puts them in jeopardy with their bosses at CBS — Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels) and Bill Paley (Frank Langella) — and the politicians. McCarthy is inflamed by Murrow and Friendly’s broadcasts that question the validity and motivations of his actions. He responds by reading a statement on air that questions Murrow’s loyalty to the United States. Murrow responds not by more insults but instead by using facts to disprove McCarthy’s hyperbolic statements. This leads to McCarthy being brought for questioning before his own committee. After a moment of glory and jubilation for the newsroom and what they accomplish, Murrow and Friendly are called to Bill Paley’s office. He tells them that they have lost their sponsor and as a result they have also lost their regular spot on the networks schedule. Thus, as a result of their integrity and belief that the U.S. people need to be informed, the very people and institutions that they have worked so hard to protect marginalize both Murrow and Friendly.

Released in October of 2005, Good Night, and Good Luck quickly became the darling of the festival circuit and awards season. It received multiple Oscar nominations (best picture, best director, best actor in a lead performance, art direction, best cinematography, and best screenplay written for the screen). The film was nominated for multiple Golden Globes’ in the categories of best picture, best director, best performance by an actor, and best screenplay. It won a Screen International award at the 2005 European film awards and won best foreign language film for the Film Critics Circle of Australia. In addition to these and other numerous awards, the film was voted best picture of 2005 by the National Board of Review, and in Venice the film captured a FIPRESCI prize, as well as a special mention for its depiction of human rights.[16]

Critics praised the film for its attempt to highlight the duplicitous nature of the McCarthy era and its parallels to the current "war on terror." In Charlotte Garson’s Cahiers du Cinéma review, she notes:

“George Clooney, declared Democrat, puts in his two cents during the long reign of George W. Bush just as Michael Moore, Robert Greenwald or William Karel did with their documentaries…”[17]

Owen Glieberman echoes this sentiment:

“The movie’s passion and in a sense its true subject, remains off screen: its there in Clooney’s presumption that the audience will see Murrow taking on McCarthy and make an analogy to present day, asking itself why no one in our corporatized media culture has dared to take a comparable stand against George Bush.”[18]

Graham Fuller, in Sight and Sound, argues another point :

“Clooney’s black and white drama is not only a cautionary fable for today, however, but also a nostalgic homage to the claustrophobic, male-dominated television newsroom of the 1950s, depicted as the last bastion of the unflinching journalism Murrow personified.”[19]

Still, other critics attacked the film for its Left-leaning, sentimental portrayal of Edward R. Murrow’s career. Stephen Hunter notes,

“[Clooney] leaves out the Cold War, the hot war in Korea, the Venona decrypts that proved how sophisticated and exhaustive the Russian intelligence initiative against the American target was. He even leaves out McCarthy himself…the film therefore is like a child’s view of these events, untroubled by complexity, hungry for myth and simplicity.”[20]

From the Left, Jonathan Rosenbaum also criticizes Clooney’s intent and messages in the film noting,

“The film adopts, somewhat insidiously, the myth that life was simpler back in 1953 and ’54, and it offers Murrow as a lesson for today, as if to ask, 'why can’t our newscasters show the integrity and nobility he did?'”[21]

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