Films as any form of media convey a message or more that either informs, entertains or stirs its viewers to take action. Others such as historical movies present a narrative of a past era of which its producers need to convey a clear understanding of the situations, characters and circumstances to its current viewers.
History films, according to Richter (2007) is “historiography with the special powers and limitations of film […] density of visual detail, which allows a feature film, with the requisite financing, to convey more about the texture of life of a past era in a few shots than a book about the period could in many pages,” (p 143). In addition, this type of movie is written for the wider audience or mass market and somehow related in some sense to the real world people live in.
This paper will argue that Goodnight, and Goodluck are not historically accurate but took parts of history to present its message and encourage a much-needed media industry action for “public service.”
Good Night, and Good Luck is considered a narrative film that took place in the early days of radio. Edward R. Murrow and producer Fred W. Friendly fought a dragon-like character Senator Joseph McCarthy. Together with reporter Joseph Wershba in the CBS newsroom, they defied corporate and sponsorship pressures although in a campaign that tested them and their nearest of relations. There had been instances that discrediting the Senator in his crusade to root out communist elements within the government were climactic to the lead characters who were somehow or indirectly involved with “suspected communists”.
The movie opened with the speech of Murrow given in his salutation night where he summoned his fellows to become vigilant, acknowledging the intelligence of readers and viewers as:
“I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is–an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate,” (RTNDA, 2009).
The team’s earliest case was of US Air Force officer Milo Radulovich being harassed and stripped of his commission from the U.S. Air Force due to his sister’s political leanings. The officer’s father complicated the situation as a subscriber of a Serbian newspaper. The conflict between Murrow and McCarthy escalated into a public feud when McCarthy accused Murrow as a communist. McCarthy insisted that Murrow is a member of the leftist union Industrial Workers of the World.
The film’s one of the most obvious historical lapses is the time when Alcoa, a major sponsor of Murrow’s show See It Now pulled out, suggested by the film to have been an effect of the McCarthy exposure. Alcoa, however, actually pulled out two years after the McCarthy sensation, and that the pull-out had been due to popularity ratings (Richter, 2007).
So much like the 1950s, its current show year (2005) was also viewed to address mass media in general to be courageous in questioning government leaders when the Republican Party was virtually in control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government (Richter, 2007).
The film tackled a climate of fear and reprisal. In the film, however, the role of CBS was not highlighted, despite the open knowledge that it was headed by businessman William Paley with a White House golfing partner. In the movie, the show and its team seemed to have been independent of its actions against McCarthy as compared to the role of political support (the president at that time did not support McCarthy).
It highlighted instead an unquestionable view on censorship as experienced in the exchange of words between Paley and Murrow. In the movie argument which may have been romanticized, insisted that, “I never, never said no to you. Never.” Of which Murrow replied, “…And I would also argue that never saying no is not the same as “not censoring.” Paley retorted and questioned about Murrow failing to correct McCarthy’s accusation that Alger Hiss was convicted of treason, instead of perjury, which, Paley viewed as censorship.
The movie featured other historical footage such as the trial of Annie Lee Moss, a Pentagon communication worker alleged as a communist. Moss had her name on a list seen by an FBI infiltrator of the American Communist Party. Other footage showed reporter Wershba and his wife having to keep their marriage secret so as not to lose their jobs at CBS. Another subplot was the suicide of Don Hollenbeck, another alleged Communist. Their accuracy definitely is out of the question as time-limit and other circumstantial filming strategies need to be considered.
The film is seen as mentioned earlier, to highlight as much as Murrow did in his speech addressed to fellow journalists the ways in which the Bush administration tried to stifle freedom of the press. Richter (2007) noted Clooney’s film to have impacted a more questioning media on the motives and competence of the administration.
As for its historical accuracy, Stoddard and Marcus (2006) suggested that the “burden of historical representation […] is difficult to meet as the desire for profits in Hollywood often prevails over the desire to tell the story through the eyes of all participants and not just those who are similar to the target audience,” (p 27). Aside from different views that need to be considered in reconstructing one truth or reality, there are various constraints that are necessary for film production finances, budgeting, time constraint, and other limitations that in the end need to address the most relevant: profits.
Dilemmas would always confront a lot of film productions and this includes Goodnight, and Goodluck, which at most tries to reach out to an audience that may not be knowledgeable about the inner world of journalism and mass media. In addition to the cynic view on media as simply another business entity after profits, the problem about glorifying media people is the probable misrepresentation of “both sides of the story” which media people themselves live by.
Goodnight, and Goodluck is a double entendre movie that both presents a past era as well as induces vigilance on a current situation. Like any other movie, it adopted certain historical representations to highlight a point, exaggerate an issue or scene without the intention to sacrifice credibility. This is forgivable in instances when the movie’s substance and essence overshadow its flaws.
Goodnight, and Goodluck while giving tribute to a historical account of the courage and integrity of broadcast journalist Murrow and his producer Friendly, the support of Paley and CBS in general, also challenged a more recent crop of journalists or the media industry to rein in their freedom to present to a public the information that they need to know, which is the incompetence of a government administration as well as its questionable motives. Historical accuracy is not its purpose, and this is its essence.
Warner Bros. (2009). “Goodnight, Goodluck.” Web.
Edward R. Murrow Speech (2009). “Industry Leaders” Web.
Richter, David H. (2007). “Keeping Company in Hollywood: Ethical Issues in Nonfiction Film.” Narrative, Volume 15, Number 2, pp. 140-166
Stoddard, Jeremy D. and Marcus, Alan S. “The Burden of Historical Representation: Race, Freedom, and “Educational” Hollywood Film.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Volume 36.1 (2006), pp. 26-35