Saturday, March 04, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck, Revisited

Back in December, I criticized Good Night, and Good Luck for embellishing its story by straying from the facts, citing a Slate article by Jack Shafer for evidence. But my pal Mor has a rather different take on matters. What Mor seems to be objecting to are two elements of Shafer's article:
  1. One of the more dramatic incidents in the movie revolves around McCarthy's attack on Annie Lee Moss, a Pentagon clerk whom he accuses of being a communist spy. The attack backfires spectacularly and is the beginning of the end for McCarthy. Shafer points out that the movie chooses to ignore the fact that Moss did indeed belong to the communist party, although she denied it under oath at the committee hearings.

  2. Shafer criticizes Murrow's actions in sympathetically portraying the case of Lt. Milo Radulovich, an officer in the Air Force who was thrown out because his family members were "suspected" security risks. Shafer makes his "argument" by quoting a Miami Herald critic who said, "Will we be comfortable these days with an Air Force officer with a security clearance whose father belongs to al Qaeda?"
Mor objects to (2) by pointing out that Shafer's "argument"/analogy is deeply flawed -- because Lt. Radulovich's family is only rumored to be a security risk, with no accusations proven in a court of law. I could not agree more. I'd add another objection to Shafer even bringing up the topic: any criticism of Murrow's actions is completely irrelevant to Shafer's analysis of the movie, so long as the movie faithfully represents what Murrow did in real life (which it did in this case).

With respect to (1), Mor feels that the movie -- being more of a parable about the state of the world today -- has a right to hide the truth in order to reinforce its message that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. I must disagree strongly, primarily on moral but also on artistic grounds.

First, I'd respect the film a lot more and would have found it more powerful had it revealed the fact of Moss' membership in the communist party. By portraying her as completely innocent, the film reduces itself to propaganda instead of making a principled statement. Funnily enough, the perfect analogy here has to do with anti-capital-punishment movies and Tim Robbins, another famous liberal. The George Clooney version would make the prisoner be a victim of wrongful conviction, just like in the hilarious movie-within-a-movie in Robert Altman's The Player (starring Tim Robbins). The truly principled movie would have the prisoner be an apparently unredeemable murderer, like in the Tim Robbins-directed Dead Man Walking.

But my objection to Clooney's work -- and all its embellishments of the truth -- runs much deeper. I believe the movie cheats the viewer unfairly to obtain his emotional investment. The film clearly wants its viewer to believe in the truth of the events transpiring on screen; everything is shot in stark documentary-style black & white, there are real documentary clips of Sen. McCarthy, the characters portrayed on screen are historical, and no disclaimers are provided up front about the story being a work of fiction (at least, none that I recall). So, the viewer's experience of the film is deeply colored by his belief in its veracity. Given this situation, there is absolutely no way that the filmmakers can hide behind any excuses for being creative with the truth. If they were more interested in making a parable than a real docudrama, one would expect them to make that extremely clear up front. Not doing so is as unacceptable as an author promoting a work of fiction as a "non-fiction" book to increase the emotional impact of his story. We all know what Oprah thinks of that.

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