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Monday, January 23, 2006

'Merely wires and lights in a box'

Journalistic integrity is rarely a black and white issue...but it is in George Clooney's astonishing new movie Good Night, And Good Luck. Clooney decided to shoot the movie in monochrome, a suitable move as it is set in the 1950s television era. And although the action of the movie is set in the past, its themes deliberately resound in the present.

Clooney writes, directs and stars as Fred Friendly, producer of a CBS news show anchored by now revered American journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn). The social context is made clear: it's the period of the Communist Witch-hunts headed by Wisconsin Seantor Joseph McCarthy. The movie opens with journalists Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jnr) and his wife Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) debating whether or not to sign a forced statement that professes that all CBS employees are "loyal Americans". Murrow and Friendly decide to turn the spotlight on McCarthy and expose his hypocrisy and scare-mongering not to mention the means by which he is bringing people before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which are unconstitutional and borderline illegal. By doing so, however, the men are drawing attention to themselves and the political sympathies of their staff, and risk losing everything - their sponsors, their jobs, their reputations - in order to bring McCarthy down.

There is no actor playing McCarthy - stock footage of the man is used instead to great effect. The cast are uniformly excellent, led by the brilliant character actor Strathairn, who, one hopes, will now become the star he deserves to be. Clooney has made an avowedly poltical movie but he is no Michael Moore. He has created a loving and enthralling tribute to journalism and is a welcome discussion point in a year that will see the 30th anniversary reissue of two of the greatest movies about American journalism ever made: Network and All the President's Men.

The McCarthy era has long been subject matter for American artists, from Arthur Millers' allegorical play The Crucible to Philip Roth's coruscating I Married A Communist. Clooney is interested in drawing parallels between that period and the present, where the administration of George W. Bush has used the media to stoke fear in a traumatised nation on an unprecedented level and where anyone who dares to question their catastrophic policies will be branded unpatriotic. The movies' taglines tell you exactly what its point it: "In A Nation Terrorized By Its Own Government, One Man Dared to Tell The Truth" and "We will not walk in fear of one another".

Many of today's most pertinent issues crop up in some guise. In addition to the obvious political message, we see the insidious work of advertisers and sponsors, censorship as well as the tension between the individual versus the state. Even an interview with Liberace draws poignant attention to the issue of gay marriage - or "unions" as he refers to it. Much like Spielberg's highly polemical Munich, many lines of dialogue will resonate in the current climate such as "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty", "I don't believe in trial by hearsay" and, most strikingly, "We cannot defend freedom abroad while deserting it at home".

More than anything, Good Night and Good Luck takes aim at journalists and the television media for abandoning its responsibility to question power and authority and for just rolling over to get its belly tickled instead of taking a bite out of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and all their ilk. McCarthy was threatening to tear the country asunder - much like George W. Bush has, him being the most polarising President in living memory.

This tense, articulate, beautifully written and executed tale ends with Murrow issuing a warning about television and the dangers of it not fulfilling a mandate to inform and enlighten. Murrow argues that if millions fail to receive illumination on the issues that affect the future of their country - like education, healthcare and policy toward the Middle East - then their television is "merely wires and lights in a box".

Television maunufacturers supplying the US should take heed and rebrand their products now. Alternatively, the media could kick itself up the arse and stop accepting at face value the spin, obfuscation, manipulation and downright lies of their government.

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