Volume 75, Number 20 | October 05 - 11, 2005

Notebook

Tailgunner Joe goes down in flames, in black and white

By Jerry Tallmer

In 1954, when it happened, the witness who took the chair would have been thought of as a colored woman — better yet, a colored lady — of a certain age. Only a few years after that, she would instead have to be identified as a black woman, although the colored woman who brought me up would have slapped me across the face if I’d ever referred to anybody, male or female, as black. Which makes a long jump to nowadays, when the P.C. way to label Annie Lee Moss would be “African-American,” though I strongly suspect that if you had done that in her presence in 1954, she would have said, like Mama Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” African what? I’m not from Africa. I’m from here.

So she took the stand, Annie Lee Moss, a skinny, worried, slightly bewildered black lady of 60-something or 70-something, all dolled up under a topheavy flowerpot hat, dragged into the hearings on a tip from Roy Cohn, the sullen silent knifelike figure lurking at the right shoulder of the junior senator from Wisconsin. “Karl Marx?” she would say. “Who’s that?” And suddenly, watching this now — now in 2005 at the center of a knockout movie called “Good Night, and Good Luck” — all the juices of fear and hatred that Joseph R. McCarthy once churned up in our insides are once again churning up even if Tailgunner Joe is 48 years safely in the ground.

Nothing ever so exposed McCarthy’s insane blend of brutality and banality — the half-truths, quarter-truths, nontruths, innuendos, red herrings, smears, sneers, idiot gurgling laughter and downright lies — as this moment of live broadcast, in the Army-McCarthy hearings, when the half-boozed loose cannon is badgering Pentagon file clerk (former cafeteria worker) Annie Lee Moss as a Communist threat to the security of these United States because the Daily Worker had been traced as finding its way into her (or somebody’s) mailbox.

Suddenly the black birthmark, or patch of hair, on his right temple, jumps out on camera like the stub of one of Satan’s horns, in counterpoint to the bully boy’s famous ill-shaved 5 o’clock shadow look. I had forgotten that too.

It was in that Annie Lee Moss moment, even more than the subsequent Joseph Welch moment (“Have you no decency, sir, at long last?” — also in this film, of course) that the self-destruction of Joe McCarthy really exploded into possibility, and McCarthy himself — as, watching it, we are further reminded — clearly knew it.

So did George Clooney and Grant Heslov, the two men who wrote the screenplay and made this movie — Clooney as writer, director, actor (Murrow’s harried CBS sidekick, Fred Friendly), Heslov as writer and producer — know it, recognize it. They put it right there as the centerpiece — right there from the original raw footage.

When chairman John McClellan in his Arkansas twang utters a few strong words against hearsay evidence (“You cannot strike it from the country’s mind, that’s the evil of it”), McCarthy suddenly caves in, realizes he’s (a) making an ass of himself, (b) making Annie Lee Moss look good.

Mumbling some obvious blather about an important appointment elsewhere, he jumps up from his seat and stalks out of the hearing room. Roy Cohn, still silent, still sullen, moves over into his boss’s place as “Good Night, and Good Luck” swerves back into the drama of Edward R. Murrow’s brilliant nationwide TV anatomy lesson on the disease of McCarthyism, bone by bone, cell by cell, lie by lie.

In Avery Fisher Hall, where “Good Night, and Good Luck” opened the 43rd New York Film Festival, some 2,700 people sat in absolute, breathless silence throughout this reconstruction of Murrow’s historic half-hour CBS broadcast — the one CBS president William S. Paley wished hadn’t happened — of March 8, 1954. In the vast auditorium you could literally have heard a pin drop. And then a sigh. And then applause.

The amazing thing about “Good Night, and Good Luck,” beyond the fact that it was made at all, is that it was made in this era of the jackal, the Age of the Lowest Common Denominator.

The film pulls very few punches, including a few punches at Murrow himself. I can’t fight McCarthy and Jack O’Brian at the same time, Murrow tells the pleading, unemployed Don Hollenbeck who had been smeared as a pinko by O’Brian — and Hollenbeck thereafter commits suicide. We see that — not the suicide, but the impact on a stony, guilty Murrow.

In this beautifully black-and-white film we see Murrow smoking himself to death, on camera, off camera, everywhere. But then, we see everybody else smoking too, even a techie, through his head mike. It’s overkill, if you like. But … well, hell.

In its 90 minutes there is only brief reference to what I myself remember most clearly about Edward R. Murrow — the Murrow of 14 years before all this, broadcasting from rooftops amidst flame, fire and falling bombs, to tell us, nightly, by radio, that London was still there.

Those days, those fellows — Murrow, Cronkite, all the rest — were the making of CBS and of a certain new kind of American journalism, and American awareness. As Murrow (fabulously reincarnated by David Strathairn) says to his magisterial, unwilling boss, William S. Paley (Frank Langella): “I would argue that this network is defined by what its news department does.”

And this country is defined, in large part, by what people with the creative intelligence of George Clooney and Grant Heslov do. Before the film spun its way in Avery Fisher the other night, Clooney stood before the big screen, cracked a few jokes, and closed with: “You guys can tell us whether we screwed it up or not.”

It’s O.K., George. You didn’t.

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