2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
Confessions of A Dangerous Mind
and Good Night and Good Luck
George Clooney on U.S.
television, history, and politics
by Brian Faucette
Scholars and film critics struggle to recount the complicated and often bleak tale of the effects of consumerism and über-capitalism on U.S. film and television industries. For them television and film seem two separate institutions that operate in different ways, and for separate purposes. However, actor/ director George Clooney’s two films Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck paint a more complex picture of the industries. In fact, these films reveal how the ideologies of corporate capitalism, entertainment, and politics work together to create the nation and its people’s identity through television. In essence, Clooney’s films operate to deconstruct two myths: (1) that of the film and television industry as being nothing more than the locus for U.S. entertainment and (2) that the people involved in the industry are thinking about the welfare of the public.
Clooney’s films Confessions of A Dangerous Mind (2002) and Good Night and Good Luck (2005) continue a tradition within cinema of attempting to lay bare the harsh economic and social realities of television while reflecting postmodern ideas and values. This tradition began in the golden age of television with such films as King of New York (1957) and A Face in the Crowd (1957), two films that depict and critique the effects of corporate capitalism on the medium of television. In current times, Clooney's work still uses the elements of cinematic expression (mise-en-scene, lighting, film stock, and staging) as well as a thematic approach to comment on and critique the nature of broadcast television, Hollywood filmmaking and U.S. politics. Clooney’s films can be identified as “TV-centric films,” a term that film scholar Thomas Doherty[open endnotes in new window] coined to discuss the wave of films made in the late 1990s that dealt with the medium of television such as The Truman Show, EdTv, Pleasantville, and Quiz Show. In each of these films the central focus of the narrative is the television industry's politics and economics that shape the types of programming made for it. In each of the examples I have cited there is a critique based on an explicit fear that television’s potential to inform and educate has been undermined by the demands of corporate sponsors and networks.
These same fears shape Clooney’s scripts. In these two films he uses the two of the primary TV genres, the game show and the news, to comment on how corporate needs taint TV's democratic possibilities. In addition, Clooney illustrates how U.S. television in its quest for ratings and advertising dollars also creates onscreen personalities who seem to transcend the medium, but only if these personalities satisfy the wishes of corporate capital. Clooney thus portrays Chuck Barris and Edward R. Murrow as examples of televisual figures who could both satisfy the wishes of corporate capitalism and rise above the medium.
The films depict these two men as myths. Clooney relies on various kinds of sources, namely historical records such as documents, memoirs, letters, and the shows that the men were involved with and also representations of Murrow and Barris constructed by society’s popular cultural memory. I use the term myth to describe Clooney's form of characterization both to indicate that he stands at some distance from those mythic figures but also to indicate that he appreciates the power of the media to make people into myth.
Roland Barthes first used the concept of the myth to theorize how language systems operate. For him myth was a type of speech and more importantly
“it [myth] is a system of communication… a message.”
What Barthes recognized is that all forms of communication create myth — including film, photographs, print advertisements and even money, thereby formulating a new project, post-structuralism. This shift in thinking allows us to analyze popular culture and how it functions to create meanings for people while also demonstrating that all forms of discourse, whether verbal or visual, are inherently linked to language. Language itself becomes complicated by this awareness. Several decades later from Barthes, an additional critical lens of post-structuralism enables an analysis of Clooney’s films to see how they deconstruct U.S. grand historical narratives, and in particular, the ironies of a television system as practiced by commercial enterprises.
These films reinterpret two areas of U.S. history and their impact on current political history. First, Clooney argues that the politics of the 1950s, a period in which U.S. broadcast television was born alongside the “Cold War,” has been responsible for creating a society supported by consumer spending. In turn, consumer spending moves the public’s attention away from larger issues such as media consolidation or the erosion of personal freedoms. Clooney indicates that "history" is not based on a sacred paradigm and, furthermore, that "history" is indeed more complex than what might be taught or read. Cinema becomes a force that can retell history, but it is ever more difficult to locate a "true" history. In some ways, these two films echo Jean Baudrillard's claim that
“history is our lost referential, that is to say our myth. It is by virtue of this fact that it takes the place of myths on screen.”
The second aspect of U.S. history that Clooney both challenges and uses to draw audiences in is personal history. He reveals how the stories of men like Barris and Murrow, as well as the average person’s stories can be transformed into history. Individuals' reactions to historical events can become part of “grand” and localized stories. In short it is the nature of the personal stories and how they connect to history that allows for these "localized narratives" to become part of a larger narrative, that of the United States or, more narrowly, its television industry.
Clooney uses large scale histories entwined with the personal stories of Barris and Murrow for two purposes. The first allows the viewer a vicarious experience of engaging in major moments of U.S. history. The second makes use of history to enhance the story's realism for the viewer. Together these two strategies entertain the viewer and simultaneously allow Clooney to comment on the harmful nature of corporate capital and free enterprise. Thus Clooney entertains and educates through a mass entertainment medium, fiction film, while taking up the theme of another medium, television.
Is it plausible to conceive of Clooney’s films as projects to re-educate their audiences by retelling U.S. history so that it criticizes the ideas and practices of the “free market” and “democracy”? Or are these films trying to account for the current low status of broadcast television or for the United States’ declining reputation in global affairs? An analysis of his first film will help to answer these questions.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
The film is based on Barris’ own memoir and so it deals with Barris’ purported claims to work as a secret assassin for the Central Intelligence Agency (a claim which has never been proven) and to be one of the few men responsible for changing the ways in which U.S. television operates and reaches audiences. Barris (played by Sam Rockwell) is shown in flashbacks and flashforwards as a man who possesses ideas and ingenuity but just never seems to get the breaks. He first becomes fascinated with television after leaving his first wife in Philadelphia in the 1950s. By the mid 1950s he works as an NBC page, then later as a member of the American Bandstand staff. While at Bandstand, he writes a pop tune about checking out girls and spending time at an amusement park entitled “Palisades Park.”
In the 1960s he convinces ABC executives to let him produce a pilot for his game show The Dating Game, which they do not air. Despondent, Barris begins to drink. One afternoon as he is drinking and getting into a bar fight, he meets Bert, (played by George Clooney) a C.I.A. agent who convinces Barris that if the entertainer will become a government killer then the agent will ensure that Barris becomes a TV success. However, Barris can never forget about television and his schemes even as he is supposed to be learning how to kill for the government. As he trains to become an assassin alongside the likes of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, Barris is still man who is unsure of himself and his own actions. This changes when he watches their instructor teach the men how to use electricity to interrogate prisoners. While watching the simulated torture of a mannequin, Barris wonders to himself whether this action might be similar to being newly married. This brutal exercise inspires him to come up with the format of his new show: The Newlywed Game. He finishes training and then he is sent off to perform his first kill for the government. When he returns to Penny, he discovers that one of the network bosses has called about his show, and Barris chooses the show over Penny. The rest of the film depicts his constant struggle with his roles as a TV producer and as a hitman and how these two jobs affect his personal life, U.S. history, and his status as an element of U.S. popular culture.
Confessions was released in December 2002 in order to make it eligible for the awards season. The film captured multiple awards for its screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Broadcast Film Critics Association, and National Board of Review). Actor Sam Rockwell (Chuck Barris) won a Silver Bear for best actor at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival and George Clooney was also nominated for a Golden Bear but did not win. Clooney did, however, win the Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Most Promising Director in 2003. His abilities as a director and the artistic impact of his first film may not have made the film a blockbuster hit, but the awards and nominations reveal that his skills as a director and the film were definitely garnering critical attention and praise. (The same level of critical attention and praise would be afforded Clooney again in 2005.) David Hunter of The Hollywood Reporter praised Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as “one of the most auspicious directing debuts by an actor since Charles Laughton’s unforgettable Night of the Hunter.” Peter Travers also complimented Clooney, writing,
“Unlike some other actors turned directors, Clooney doesn’t take the easy way with his turn behind the camera. No intimate character piece like what Denzel Washington pulls off with Antwone Fisher and Nicholas Cage botches with Sonny.”
The fact that Clooney’s first film was received with such high praise demonstrates how he made the transition from TV's limiting prospects to cinema's more expansive potential. Furthermore, Roger Ebert recognizes why Clooney would choose to direct a film like this one:
"That this would be the first project to attract George Clooney as a director is not surprising if you know that his father directed game shows and [young George] was often a backstage observer. That Clooney would direct it so well is a little surprising, and is part of the re-education by which we stop thinking of Clooney as a TV hunk and realize he is smart and curious.”
Clooney highlights his curiosity and intelligence as he tells Barris’ life story while also exposing the hypocrisies within U.S. broadcast television programming (especially in game shows). In order to achieve this, Clooney embraces the playful spirit of Barris’ psychosis and the sheer pleasure of the game show. Travers echoes this point in his review of the film, when he asks,
“How does George Clooney handle his first job as a director? He makes a game of it. Smart move, since Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is more a game than a movie…”
In other words, Clooney makes the film resemble a game show in its direction and theme.
The game show format has been a staple of U.S. television since the inception of broadcast television and its influence on this film is without question. John Fiske notes that there has been something like “over 300 different quiz and game shows, the majority in the daytime, or at least outside prime time.” Furthermore, Fiske argues, the game show has been a major TV genre because of TV's connection to radio, and before that to party and community activities. The game show acts as a field because, as Fiske argues,
“quiz shows use knowledge…to separate out winners from losers and to ground the classification in individual or natural differences.”
While Fiske is dealing with the quiz show, his ideas are applicable to game shows such as those created by Barris (The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show). While these shows may not require the individuals to demonstrate any knowledge or talent, they still position the contestants as "winners" or "losers." Therefore, these shows act as a precursor to the current fascination with reality television because, like reality television, these shows rely on non-professionals and their supposed candid moments. Within this genre of television Barris would succeed. According to some of his critics, however, this was far from a positive development. Clooney makes this point clear when a reporter in the film proclaims,
“ … [Barris] represents more than just the decline of American television. … Chuck Barris will do more harm to our society than we seem to realize.”
The reporter’s statement in the film demonstrates that Barris is himself a type of myth, or three myths: Chuck Barris the man, Chuck Barris the supposed C.I.A. hitman, and Chuck Barris the genius producer of U.S. television. The three identities have a certain degree of slippage between them, which Kaufman’s script revels in and Barris’ autobiography perpetuates. Clooney’s reliance on hyper-stylistic choices encapsulates Barris' mythic qualities. One example occurs when Barris is shown in a bar fight and then he is tossed out into the street. There is a cut, and in the background we see a store front window with televisions in it. The image, with a silvery glow of the television picture on Barris’ face, is accompanied by Barris' voice over as he says,
“I had heard that television was an industry of the future. So I picked up and moved from Philly to Manhattan.”
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.” 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.”
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. 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.
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…”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?'”
The answer to Rosenbaum’s question lies in understanding the history of broadcast news and how it has become “info-tainment” as a result of developments in capitalism and the concentration of media in the hands of six major companies. In the early 1950s, the so-called Golden Age of television, journalists like Murrow believed news could be relevant, insightful, and politically active; they dared to challenge the belief that television served only to entertain. The way the script defends this insight is a vital element of the film that has been glossed over when critics choose to see the film just as a political allegory for the Bush/Cheney era. In reality the film is about Murrow as myth, McCarthy as political force, and the commodification of U.S. broadcast television, especially in the area of television journalism.
Themes within the film about freedom of the press and the need to educate the U.S. people are Clooney’s political message. Furthermore, the whole film functions as a counterpoint to his earlier Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Both films are based on Clooney’s own self-exploration of television, a medium that both he and his father worked in. His father was a newscaster and it is Clooney’s memories of his father that shape the Good Night and Good Luck and Clooney's own career. He validates this point when he says in an interview with Rob Feld,
“I grew up in it [television] and spent my whole life in it. My father’s in it and it’s a big part of my life. So I think you direct and write about things you know, first.”
What Clooney seems to understand better than many Americans are the potential and limits of broadcast television to both entertain and inform. Clooney recognizes Edward R. Murrow as someone who was influential in U.S. television. Grant Heslov, Clooney’s friend and collaborator on the script, in his answers to Feld, understands this when he says,
“George grew up in the world of local news. Murrow was somebody who was held in high regard in his home.”
The film honors the myth of Murrow and his dedication to the U.S. spirit and way of life. Thus Murrow, like Barris can be understood in the film in multiple ways: Murrow the historical figure, Murrow the man, Murrow the journalist, and Murrow the prognosticator of the downfall of U.S. television. And it is this last strand of the Murrow persona that Clooney utilizes in the opening of the film with Murrow’s speech,
"Your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and dangerous thoughts. But the elaborate structure of Networks, Advertising Agencies and Sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television. If what I have to say is responsible, then I alone am responsible for the saying of it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the Kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence…escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent…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, may see a totally different picture too late."
Interestingly, the speech delivered in the film is cobbled together from an article Murrow wrote for TV Guide and not the actual speech. The actual speech was later published in TV Guide in December of 1958 and within that published piece we can locate the kernel of Murrow’s embittered philosophy about the realities of television versus its possibilities. He writes there,
“If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: Pay Now, Pay Later. For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive.”
It is apparent that while Murrow challenged some of the tactics of the Cold War, he also was an individual who bought into the perception that the Soviets were out to destroy the United States. Even though Murrow is celebrated as the man who brought McCarthy to justice for selling the irrational belief that the United States was being invaded by the Soviets, in fact history shows that Murrow himself was fearful of Soviet influence. He believed that it was television and radio, which could preserve the United States because of its power to reach so many people in a short period of time. His comments may seem dated, yet I would argue they still offer us insight into how the United States has in fact not really progressed in its way of thinking about the role of the media and the country's relation with the citizenry.
There is a common-sense view of television that sees it only as a means of escape and insulation from the real world (even so-called reality television is an attempt to forget one’s own day-to-day existence). Furthermore, in an era when global wars are enacted in the name of the people and in the name of freedom, news — the one area of television that could perhaps present "the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive" — has been co-opted by the very entities that news should be critical of in its coverage. Clooney’s film longs for a modern day champion like Murrow who would challenge the current power structure in U.S. politics and broadcast television. The film years for someone who would use their influence as a member of the press to ensure that the U.S. Constitution is protected and the citizenry educated to see that the restriction of a few rights, or slight alterations are in effect wholesale changes to the ideals of the United States.
These challenges were recognized by Murrow in 1953 and 54. As the film depicts, Murrow’s attack on McCarthyism and the Red Scare was not without controversy or danger. This is best illustrated in the scene when Murrow, Friendly and Sig Mickelson discuss how Murrow is changing the policy of CBS news. The three men are watching footage of Milo Radulovich photographed by Murrow’s news team. Murrow is positioned in the left side of the frame, Mickelson is in the center, and Friendly is in the background. The staging of the scene in this fashion is used as visual shorthand to establish the political positions of the characters before the exchange of dialogue between the three men. I am using only Murrow and Mickelson’s lines to emphasize this point.
Mickelson: Well, that’s new. I don’t think you can call this a neutral piece.
Murrow: Sig, I think the other side’s been represented rather well for the last couples of years…
Mickelson: So, you just want to forego the standards that you’ve stuck to for fifteen years…both sides…no commentary…I’m just making sure we identify what you’re both doing.
Murrow: We all editorialize, it’s just to what degree…I’ve searched my conscience and I can’t for the life of me find any justification for this. I simply cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument. If you call it editorializing, then call it that…
Mickelson: It is editorializing. Period. You understand the position you’re putting us in? I have to go back to Mr. Paley and to Alcoa, who sponsors your show and also happens to have military contracts, and tell them they might be caught in a tough bind because of a beef you had with Joe McCarthy.
Murrow: We’re not going at McCarthy.
Mickelson: You’re starting the goddamn fire.
In this exchange Clooney encapsulates Murrow's changing stance as a member of the news profession and also points towards how news that is beholden to a sponsor is detrimental to the reporter as well as the average citizen. The discussion about editorializing is also something that Murrow addressed in writing:
"To undertake an editorial policy, overt and clearly labeled, and obviously unsponsored requires a station or network to be responsible…Editorials would not be profitable; if they had a cutting edge they might even offend. It is much easier, much less troublesome to use the money-making machine of television and radio merely as a conduit through which to channel anything that is not libelous, obscene or defamatory."
Murrow’s 1958 comments are prescient in recognizing that the power of U.S. journalism to serve and inform was being watered down by its need to be accountable to ratings, advertisers, and the belief that news must be entertaining.
In this vein it is useful to consider how contemporary scholars of television such as John Fiske understand the idea of news. Fisk argues that the news is first
“a high-status television genre. Its claimed objectivity and independence from political or government agencies is argued to be essential for the workings of a democracy. Television companies applying for renewal of their licenses turn to their news and current affairs programs as evidence of their social responsibility … And second it is a commodity.”
This belief that news is a commodity is exactly what Pierre Bourdieu laments when he explains,
“The fact that a television news anchor can become the editor of a newspaper or newsmagazine from one day to the next makes you wonder just what the specific competence required of a journalist might be.”
In other words for Bourdieu, in journalism and especially in the area of television news, there is no real sense of training or professionalism. Rather, the journalist serves the interests of the powers that be instead of challenging their hold on political capital and the social structure. This inability or unwillingness by contemporary journalists to assault the structures of capitalism is what Clooney wishes to criticize, just as he had criticized the programming content of broadcast television (game shows). Therefore news is not only a commodity in the case of Good Night and Good Luck: it is a historical referent and a generic element of television. More than this, the historical moment that is the focus of the film illustrates how the myth of Murrow and McCarthy were constructed.
By shooting the film in black and white Clooney sells the mythos of the battle between Murrow and McCarthy to contemporary audiences and evokes the 1950s. He notes in his interview with Feld,
"From the very beginning I knew I was going to do it in black and white, because I have never seen Edward R. Murrow or Joe McCarthy in color. I don’t know them in color.”
Americans of the 1950s were accustomed to viewing their cultural and historical perspectives through black and white photography and how for modern audiences the 1950s is read as a decade of black and white aesthetics, despite the fact that on cinema screens movies were being shot in glorious Technicolor. This is a point that several of the critics of the film note in their reviews:
“The black-and-white cinematography captures the particular hard-edged electricity of those days.”
This sense of electricity can be felt especially in the scenes between Murrow and Friendly, in particular that of the scene when the news team first work together to air the broadcast on Radulovich’s ordeal. In the scene Clooney shows the preparations required to air a live television broadcast in the 1950s intercut with the image of Murrow (David Straithairn) smoking a cigarette. There is then a cut and the camera is placed so that the viewer assumes the point-of-view of Friendly as he sits at Murrow’s feet. The shot is set up so that Murrow is in the center of the frame and towers above his friend. This staging indicates for the viewer that, while many people have been involved in making the story, Murrow is the celebrity and as such he is the most important figure in the film and in history.
Clooney chose to center the film on five episodes of the See It Now broadcasts. He believed that the five broadcasts which aired in opposition to McCarthy were as important to U.S. history and journalism as the moment when Walter Cronkite in a special broadcast on Vietnam declared that the war was not winnable. This belief that Murrow was the savior of the United States is certainly not universal; it has been contested by historian Steven Stark, who notes that “he had a negligible impact on the overall course of the medium and its news coverage.” Yet the film celebrates Murrow’s accomplishments, and for many that is what the film is about, the slaying of McCarthy and his Red Scare. If this were the main focus of the film, however, then I believe the film would have ended with the moment when one of the guys in the newsroom announces that “the Senate’s investigating McCarthy.”
But this is not where the film ends, and I believe the further developments in the script are vital to recognize and understand. Murrow and Friendly seem to be safe; they have done a great service to the country; and in what may be construed to be a level of naïveté they believe they have changed the face of U.S. broadcast television. Unfortunately as Clooney illustrates through the encounter between Murrow, Friendly and Bill Paley, the president of CBS, the future that they believe in is not an option. To clarify this point I use the dialogue from the scene in Paley’s office.
Paley: The problem isn’t simply that you’ve lost your sponsor. With Alcoa, See It Now still loses money.
Friendly: The fee is fifty thousand. And last week’s show we did for less than the fee.
Paley: Fred, you’re speaking beyond your competence.
Murrow: We’ll find another sponsor…we can certainly find someone who wants to…
Paley: $64,000 Question brings in over eighty thousand in sponsors and costs a third of what you do. Ed. I’ve got Tuesday night programming that’s number one. People want to enjoy themselves. They don’t want a civics lesson.
Murrow: What do you want, Bill?
In this brief exchange Clooney is able to show how the mighty Murrow, U.S. icon, would also be constrained by the realities of broadcast television. TV would never be about news or education, as he advocated for, because television is tied to the idea of choice through advertising. Perhaps Murrow understood this better than anyone when he wrote that the problems with television lie in the fact that it was the combination of show business, advertising and news. Thus television was born out of the framework of radio that ensured it would be dependent on advertising and corporate functioning rather than a sense of social responsibility. Murrow articulated such a hard realization in his article for TV Guide in 1958 when he argued that in fact TV
“reflects a desire on the part of the corporations who pay the advertising bills to have the public imagine, or believe, that they are not merely bodies with no souls, panting in pursuit of elusive dollars.”
Murrow saw the effects of corporate control over the flow of information; and George Clooney continues to see the same problems in the United States today.
The film ends with a return to Murrow’s speech of 1958. Once again Clooney and Heslov as the scriptwriters parse the speech and use the passages that are cautionary and relevant to contemporary experience. Murrow says in the film:
“If they are right, and this instrument [television] is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”
These feelings and fears about the role of television in U.S. history and our daily lives are still felt today. Recently writer-producer Aaron Sorkin took the opportunity to use his show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to criticize the current status of broadcast television. His character Wes, who is modeled after Lorne Michael, one of the producers of Saturday Night Live, says:
"This isn’t gonna be a very good show tonight and I think you should change the channel. You should change the channel right now, or better yet turn off the TV. No, I know it seems like this is supposed to be funny, but tomorrow you’re gonna find out it wasn’t…This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but its gotten lobotomized by a candy-ass broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience…We’re all being lobotomized by the country’s most influential industry which has thrown in the towel on any endeavor that does not include the courting of 12-year-old boys. And not even the smart 12-year-olds, the stupid ones, the idiots of which there are plenty thanks in no small part to this network. So change the channel, turn off the TV. Do it right now."
Such calls to arms against the commercialization and commodification of the U.S. experience have gone unheeded. As a result television is still nothing more than a receiver that delivers programs which amuse, insulate, and entertain. This is the real problem that Clooney understands: that when the masses are diverted away from the truth, those in power can freely operate and hold onto power. Like the bread and circuses of ancient Rome, so too in these dark times television serves the ideology that advocates pre-emptive war, warrantless wiretapping, and detention without representation. It seems necessary for the continuation of the American way of life that the media serve as more than court jesters or darker days might in fact come to pass.
No Murrow today challenges the status-quo or asks the difficult questions because U.S. broadcast journalism has been reduced to nothing more than the purveyor of misinformation rather than a force which informs, educates, and challenges. Together these two films, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good, Night and Good Luck, illustrate Clooney’s apprehensions about the effects of corporate capitalism on U.S. identities, political systems, journalism and entertainment. In addition what these films question is the effect of capitalism on U.S. history and the body politic.
1. See Thomas Doherty’s “Sex, Half-Truths and Videotape: Autofocus and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Cineaste 28.2, Spring 2003, pp. 10-13.
2. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972, p. 109. Barthes’ preliminary reliance on semiotics cannot be overstated, yet he recognized the limitations of structuralism and its rigid adherence to an analysis of how spoken language functions. He theorized that myth meant more than spoken words; he allowed for the concept to grow and develop into something more than a simple theory to better understand language.
3. This is an important distinction to consider because the historical film (or films that utilize historical backdrops to ground the narrative) have been commonplace (to one degree or another) in U.S. and world cinema since its beginnings.
4. See Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994, page 43.
5. See www.imdb.com
6. See David Hunter’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
7. See Peter Travers' review Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
8. See Roger Ebert’s review Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
9. Peter Travers.
10. John Fiske, Television Culture, New York: Meuthen, 1987, page 265.
11. Ibid 265.
12. Ibid 267.
13. Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates, New York: Verso, 2002, page 25.
14. Eileen Meehan, Why TV is Not Our Fault, New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005, page 23.
15. Steven D. Stark, Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events that Made Us Who We Are Today, New York: Free Press, 1997, pages 119-123. He discusses how The Dating Game changed U.S. television because it showed that Americans were having sex not only within the confines of marriage.
16. See imdb.com
17. Charlotte Garson, “Cathodic Discourse,” Cahiers du Cinéma, trans. Sally Shafto,
18. Owen Glieberman, “Good Night and Good Luck,” Entertainment Weekly, September 21, 2006
19. Graham Fuller “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: George Clooney,” Sight and Sound, March 2006, page14.
20. Stephen Hunter, “Good Night: A Gray Era in Stark Black and White,” Washington Post, October 7, 2005,
21. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Constant Compromise: Good Night and Good Luck,” Chicago Reader,
22. Rob Feld, “Q&A with George Clooney and Grant Heslov,” in Good Night and Good Luck: The Screenplay and History Behind the Landmark Movie, New York: Newmarket Press, 2005, page 95. This statement can also be applied to his first film I believe because it is apparent that what Clooney knows and understands of how broadcast television functions.
23. Ibid 77.
24. Clooney and Heslov, “Good Night and Good Luck,” New York: Newmarket Press, 2005, page 102.
25. Murrow, “How TV Can Help Us Survive,” TV Guide, December 13, 1958, page 23.
26. Murrow, page 23.
27. John Fiske, Television Culture, New York: Meuthen, 1987, page 281. He argues that news becomes a commodity because of the expense required to gather and distribute information to the populace.
28. Pierre Bourdieu, page 50.
29. Feld, 89.
30. Stephen Hunter.
31. Clooney and Heslov, page 78-79.
32. Stark, page 43.
33. Murrow, page 24.
34. Murrow, page 25.
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