Monday, December 05, 2005

Terry Teachout piece in Commentary

Terry Teachout's got an outstanding piece in Commentary, reviewing Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck. And he does a great job going into the historical context on each, and the way that the latter plays up, and the former shows the reality behind, the journalist-as-unbiased-purveyor-of-truth-hero model in which the mainstream media is so deeply invested.
There has always been something faintly silly about Hollywood’s worshipful portrayal of journalists. With the exception of such cynical comedies as Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940), most American movies purporting to show journalism as it is take for granted the trustworthiness and good intentions of the average reporter. Not surprisingly, these films are usually the work of outsiders who know nothing about the daily workings of newspapers, magazines, or TV news divisions. Even when a branch of the media is shown as gravely flawed, as in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), James Brooks’s Broadcast News (1987) or Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), one need not look too hard to find the starry-eyed idealists in the woodpile, earnestly speaking truth to power.

If George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, a docudrama about Edward R. Murrow—the title is the catchphrase with which Murrow closed his radio and TV newscasts in the 1940’s and 50’s—were merely another such exercise in hagiography, it would be unworthy of consideration for other than its purely cinematic qualities. But Clooney, the latest of Hollywood’s Left-liberal actors to go behind the camera and make politically oriented films of his own, has added to the mix a more telling form of idealization: in this movie, he also becomes the latest Hollywood director to make a film in which the truth about American Communism is deliberately falsified. Moreover, in a piece of bad timing, his film happens to have been released simultaneously with Bennett Miller’s Capote, in which a serious effort is made to suggest precisely some of the inherent moral ambiguities of real-life journalism that Good Night, and Good Luck mostly overlooks.

I haven't seen either film yet, but I'll see both eventually, as the both have topics that interest me. I've read In Cold Blood, and thought it a fascinating read. And I've got a personal interest in McCarthy. My grandfather was, before his death, the secretary to Sen. William Jenner of Indiana. He and my grandmother knew Joe McCarthy, and I've been told for years that the press and conventional wisdom on him was wrong. I do know that one of my great pet peeves is to hear what McCarthy did called "witch hunts" - there are no witches, but there certainly were communist spies in the state department in the 1940s and 1950s. I know that Alger Hiss was guilty, and the press never forgave Nixon for being right about him. Well, Teachout addresses some of the historical context on McCarthy and Murrow in his piece:
As is now widely acknowledged by scholars of the period—and as American intelligence officials knew at the time—the American Communist party was used by the Soviets as an intelligence apparatus through which, starting in the early 30’s, Soviet spies successfully infiltrated the U.S. government. Yet with the exception of one glancing, carefully unspecific reference to Alger Hiss, the script of Good Night, and Good Luck takes no notice whatsoever of this well-known fact. Rather, we are invited to suppose that the activities of Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, and other Soviet agents were nothing more than a paranoid fantasy on the part of McCarthy and his supporters.

We know better, but, damningly for Clooney’s project, Murrow himself did not. He had been, for example, one of the most vocal defenders of Laurence Duggan, a State Department official who committed suicide in 1948 after the House Un-American Activities Committee revealed that Whittaker Chambers, the Soviet agent who was Hiss’s controller, had identified him as another agent. Decoded Soviet cables made public years later proved that Chambers was telling the truth, just as he had told the truth about Hiss.

Needless to say, Duggan goes unmentioned in Good Night, and Good Luck. Instead, Clooney devotes several minutes of the film to footage from another episode of See It Now in which McCarthy is shown interrogating Annie Lee Moss, a Pentagon employee who worked in the Signal Corps code room, a highly sensitive area. McCarthy accused Moss of having been a Communist without offering evidence to back up his claim. Murrow in turn offered this interrogation as proof of McCarthy’s irresponsibility—yet, again, no mention is made in Good Night, and Good Luck of the fact that the Communist party’s own records later proved Moss to have been a party member.

It's a great read - I recommend it highly...



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