Rob Edelman: Bobby Kennedy...And Joe McCarthy

Jun 4, 2018

These days, there is plenty of media hype surrounding the assassination of Robert Kennedy, which was exactly a half-century ago. Now of course, had he not been murdered, he just may have been elected to the U.S. presidency in 1968, and massive amounts of American history might have been altered. However, the one name that presently is popping into my mind is neither Bobby nor his brother, President John F. Kennedy. It is, of all people, Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin. The connection here is that Bobby Kennedy, as a young lawyer, was an assistant council to the Senate committee chaired by McCarthy.

And this, combined with our present-day American-style politics, recalls a much-heralded film which dates from 2005, and which I recently re-saw. That would be George Clooney’s GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. There is much to say about GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK, and this transcends the fact that Robert Kennedy appears onscreen, in archival footage. To start with, this is not just an outstanding film. It is an important one. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK tells the story of one courageous journalist, CBS-TV’s Edward R. Murrow, and how he came to challenge the power and might of Joe McCarthy. Here, Clooney (who also co-scripted, with Grant Heslov) emphasizes the importance of a free press, and the responsibilities of a free press. 

Of course, back in the 1950’s, McCarthy was winning headlines by playing on America’s fears about the spread of communism. According to McCarthy, communists had infiltrated the government and the military. And heaven help anyone who might criticize him. If you did, you too might be accused of harboring a commie past. No proof was needed. Such an accusation was enough to wreck your career, and destroy your life. So at the time, few in the American media were willing to take on McCarthy for fear that they also would be targeted.

Back in the 1950’s, Edward R. Murrow was one of our country’s most illustrious journalists. But as portrayed in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK, he is no celebrity-obsessed talking head. He is a journalist, with a capital J. To Murrow, the primary role of journalist is that of truth-teller. This is a grave responsibility, one that must not be tampered with, and this precisely is what Murrow sets out to do regarding the Senator from Wisconsin.

The parallels in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK to our present-day culture are unmistakable and, Bobby Kennedy or no Bobby Kennedy, this is why the film is ripe for rediscovery. For one thing, as McCarthy pronounces that every decent American who loves his country should side with him, Murrow observes that we must not confuse dissension with disloyalty. This is as relevant today as in the heyday of Senator McCarthy.

In GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK, David Strathairn plays Murrow, and he does an exceptional job of embodying the spirit and determination of the man. But in an inspired creative choice, no actor plays the senator. That is because the real Joe McCarthy is seen throughout, in archival footage. So in essence, Joe McCarthy plays himself in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. In so doing, he hovers over the film like a dark, shadowy ghost, with his presence adding a chilling dose of reality. Seeing the real Joe McCarthy-- and seeing the real Robert Kennedy in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK-- are sobering reminders of what America once was, once upon a time.

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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