"The Tube is Flickering Now"

"The Tube is Flickering Now": Aesthetics of Authenticity in Good Night, and Good Luck

Sina Nitzsche

1 Introduction

American history seems to repeat itself. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks civil liberties have increasingly been pressurized in order to cherish the illusion of maximum national security. The Patriot Act expands the power of authorities, creates a "society of surveillance" (Niess 7), and discriminates 'suspicious' persons. American media is mostly silent and renounces the right to make use of the First Amendment to exercise its control function, a tendency that Judith Butler also recently observed in Precarious Life (1-3). The contrary even seems to hold true: Media correspondents like Geraldo Rivera of Fox Network support the American troops with inside reports from the battle field instead of critically questioning the US involvement in the Middle East.

The current climate mirrors a dark phase in US cultural history, McCarthyism. The era, which was named after a Wisconsin Senator, stretched from the late 1940s to the late 1950s and was marked by a fear of Communism, limitation of civil liberties (Whitfield 1-2), and suspicion of cultural difference. Then, like now, television kept mostly silent about the violations of democratic ideals, such as freedom of speech, partly also because the political potential of the flickering tube was yet uncovered at this point in history – except for Edward Murrow's program See It Now (Tracey 125).1

Set in the early days of the Eisenhower presidency, Good Night, and Good Luck (Dir. George Clooney, 2005) draws on the legendary CBS host and points out the parallels between current conformist tendencies and its mid-century precedent. It is not only the historical background of the US $ 7.3 million low-budget production ("Box Office,")2 but also its striking visual style that appeals to the audience. The Clooney/Heslov/Soderbergh co-production reincarnates the early days of television on the big screen and evokes a sense of nostalgia. The Warner Independent Picture released in black and white inserts historical footage and, according to the New York Times, resembles a documentary cinéma vérité style (Scott). Although or rather because the movie violates common viewing habits the question to be answered is: why is Good Night, and Good Luck so successful? The Venice Film Festival winner earned six Oscar nominations and grossed more than US $ 31.5 million in the US only (as of 12 March 2006) ("Box Office").

I would argue that the movie appeals to the audience through its unusual aesthetic style. Good Night, and Good Luck launches an imaginary journey back to the beginnings of American television through the construction of an 'authentic' filmic evidence of that time. It further serves as an instance of articulation about the dissatisfaction with current American politics by offering a connection to the era of McCarthyism. In doing so, I will be drawing on Winfried Fluck's notion of the aesthetic experience and its connection to the function(s) of literature. In order to answer the question of how a historical theme is represented to appeal to a contemporary filmic audience, I will briefly characterize Cold War media culture.

2 Murrow, McCarthy and the Media

Good Night, and Good Luck is set in the historio-cultural context of the early 1950s which was marked by the anxieties the end of World War II brought over America, such as the devastating effect of Pearl Harbor and the emerging two-bloc system. Stephen Whitfield connects the emerging climate of fear and paranoia to the frustration of the loss of the American atomic monopoly (5). Thus, everything that seemed to threaten the American mainstream value system was seen as a menace to national security. First and foremost, Communism depicted a major threat because of its secretive, totalitarian and atheistic nature (Whitfield 3, 10). Ethnic or gender difference, like minorities, immigrants, or homosexuals, seemed to subvert the conservative post-War American life style as well.

The key figure of that era is Joseph McCarthy who embodied the mission to root out Communism. He blindly accused several people (ordinary citizens, as well as Hollywood stars) of being traitors to American ideals without presenting actual evidence. The cases of Bulgarian Air Force reservist Milo Radulovich or Pentagon communication worker Annie Lee Moss are documented in the movie. The media remained mostly silent about the questionable methods of the Wisconsin senator; especially television was lacking an appropriate investigative format at that early time (Tracey 125). Criticism was expressed on a subversive level in American popular culture, e.g. by science-fiction invasion movies, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), or independent western films like High Noon (1952).

News anchor Edward Murrow discovered TV's investigative potential and played a crucial role in the breakdown of the McCarthy system (Tracey 125). Adhering to the responsibility of journalism to question politics, Murrow attacked the senator's abuse of power in See It Now. This program marked a turning point in the political career of McCarthy, as Tracey suggests, even the end of it (125).

The Murrow-McCarthy media dispute, however, took place on March 9, 1954, more than 50 years ago. The next section tries to give a theoretical explanation of the impact of the text's historical subject matter on today's audience.

3 Text, Recipient and Aesthetic Experience

The film's main themes remain largely unknown to the audience, partly because the movie provides little explanation of the historic background, and partly because the audience does not remember or does not want to remember that era in American history according to Clooney (DVD bonus material). How is it possible then that it receives such an enormous present-day resonance? After all, the movie affected not only the average multiplex visitor, but also film festival juries.

To answer this question, I will refer to Fluck's notion of the aesthetic function in literature. In his essay on "Funktionsgeschichte und Ästhetische Erfahrung" he argues that a text must have an aesthetic effect on its audience in order to unfold its full socio-cultural meaning: "[…] soziale und politische Funktionen können von literarischen Texten immer nur über die ästhetische Funktion avisiert werden" (33). The text must fulfill a (constructed) function for the recipient, which is facilitated through aesthetic pleasure. Fluck uses Iser's performativity of reading to explain how the reader creates an imagination based on the text and, therefore, constitutes its (heuristic) function (33-34). The aesthetic experience derives from two aspects: on the one hand, the text produced by the author (director) which serves as a basis, and, on the other hand, the so-called imaginary part which derives from the socio-cultural background of the reader (35-36):

Das aber heißt, dass der fiktionale Text genau genommen zwei Dinge gleichzeitig darstellt: eine mit Hilfe der literarischen Illusionsbildung kreierte Welt und jene imaginären Anteile, die dazu beitragen, diese Welt als Vorstellung zu realisieren. [...] Die fiktive Welt des Textes kann erst durch den Transfer imaginärer Anteile Gestalt und Nachhaltigkeit der Wirkung gewinnen; auf der anderen Seite eröffnet sich aber auch für den Leser die Möglichkeit, ein noch gestalt- und strukturloses Imaginäres zu artikulieren, indem sich Bilder, Stimmungen und Körperempfindungen in parasitärer Weise an die Darstellung fremder Welten heften können. Es ist diese Doppelstruktur, die als die eigentliche Quelle ästhetischer Erfahrung angesehen werden kann. (Fluck 36)

The aesthetic experience possesses a meta-function which is pointed out in reference to the American novel. The reading process is a search for the articulation of feelings and emotions that otherwise cannot being able to be articulated, such as cultural taboos (46).

In that regard, film presents a special challenge to the viewer. Whereas literature creates an imagination through the act of reading, film already supplies a visual impression. Therefore, the viewer is confronted with three difficulties: Firstly, the spectator encounters the fictional filmic character, which is secondly represented by the real actor/actress and, thirdly, the viewer's own imagination (43):

Paradoxerweise wird unsere Vorstellungskraft in diesem Fall [Film] durch die Verbindung von Star und filmischer Figur vor besondere Herausforderungen gestellt, denn wir werden beide ständig aufeinander beziehen und müssen sie doch zugleich auseinander halten, so dass ein kompliziertes Beziehungsgeflecht zwischen Star, filmischer Figur und jenen imaginären Anteilen entsteht [...] (Fluck 43)

The viewer, therefore, both watches and interprets the images on the screen, simultaneously creating a direct, immediate aesthetic experience (44).

The author discusses this issue primarily with regard to the character constellation in film.3 The viewer, however, as I would argue, also faces other challenges that are concerned with the film style, more precisely mise-en-scène or cinematography. Both contribute to a sense of filmic realism, provide an indication for the interpretation of the movie, or for the generic classification. Good Night, and Good Luck serves as an appropriate example for the articulation function especially with reference to the current political climate as I will demonstrate below.

4 The Aesthetics of Cold War Authenticity

Good Night, and Good Luck constructs an 'authentic' account of the golden age of television through its documentary style, character constellation and climate of fear and paranoia.4 It enables an immediate aesthetic experience and exploits the cultural articulation potential of its audience.

The movie's genre moves at the intersection of history, documentary and melodrama (Doherty 53, 54). The central narrative around Murrow and his fellow producers in the fight against political arbitrariness is bookended by a flashback which takes place at the annual reception of the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1958. The main narration takes place between October 1953 and April 1954. The documentary style is further evoked by the inclusion of a short contextualization at the beginning and the insertion of intertitles stating dates. However, the historical timeline is not congruent with the filmic representation (Doherty 55). Therefore, historical reality and fiction are mingled.

Authenticity is furthermore highlighted in the production process. The DVD bonus material presents the real Studio 41 staff members and their impression of the events. Clooney emphasized that he wanted to have a maximum amount of historic accuracy, therefore the news room meetings were 'real' meetings based on newspaper clips of that day in history. The news room shots, which feature a group of cigarette-smoking men in shirts and ties in front of a projector watching a celluloid senator, references a similar graphic impression of newsreel reporters in Citizen Kane (1941). Throughout the movie, the audience holds the position of a silent observer. The use of telephoto lenses permits close-up shots of the CBS members and their fight against injustice. The cinematic spectator therefore is an immediate witness of the unfolding narrative and enables a direct and authentic viewing experience. Like the timeline modifications, some of the characters have also been modified in order to fit the fictional narration (DVD bonus material). The aesthetic experience, however, is not affected by those changes since the details of that time are hardly remembered by the audience.

The visual impact is more important. The aesthetic pleasure is constructed through the stark black and white cinematography. Clooney borrowed the cinéma vérité style from documentaries like D. A. Pennebaker's documentaries Primary, or Crisis (DVD bonus material). It also resembles early Cold War (subversive anti-McCarthy) movies of the 1950s and early 1960s, such as High Noon (1952) or The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The absence of color creates a more 'realistic' setting for the narration because early pre-Technicolor images are mostly remembered for being shot in black and white resembling the dominant viewing habits of that time:

Because colour was initially associated with fantasy and spectacle its use tended to be restricted to genres like the cartoon, the western, the costume romance and the musical rather than the war film, the documentary and the crime picture. (Neale 85)

Early cinematic technology almost exclusively used black and white cinematography, except for the 'fictional' examples Steve Neale mentions in the above quote. The binary color system therefore constitutes a dominant early 'authentic' filmic convention. From today's perspective, however, the film seems to carry less the notion of authenticity at first glance because today's filmic conventions declare color as the main ingredient of a medial reproduction of realism. Its absence here is, firstly, a direct reference to other political-inspired films of that era and, secondly, it references the rise of investigative journalism in American history.

Similar to early Cold War movies like Stanley Kubrick's apocalyptic science-fiction satire Dr. Strangelove (1964)which concluded with a montage of exploding nukes, Good Night, and Good Luck uses historic footage. McCarthy's grainy accusations, his witch-hunts and his final appearance on See It Now is blended with edited studio scenes. The immediateness of the McCarthy era becomes hauntingly real. The viewer is a direct witness of Cold War paranoia and its instrumentalization for political purposes. Using the archival material could also work towards the recipient's aesthetic pleasure, because it uses the editing conventions of the MTV-age. Desson Thomson noted in the Washington Post that "[p]erhaps this postmodern collage is just a way of catching up with pop music, particularly hip-hop, in which sampling of previous songs (the musical equivalent of archival footage) has become the new creativity." The inclusion of archival footage, such as Annie Lee Moss's hearing (the scene lasts several minutes) or McCarthy's response on See It Now, serves to maximize the imaginary portion of the filmic reception. And it seems to work. Clooney comments on the usage of the real McCarthy:

We tested this film and literally twenty-five percent of the people did not know who Joe McCarthy was. They asked us who the actor playing Joe McCarthy was. (Murray)

The key figure besides the senator is Edward Murrow. In his online essay "The Kinescope as Mirror" Carloss James Chamberlin suggests that Murrow and McCarthy hold a "David-and-Goliath"-like constellation categorizing the movie as a doppelgänger picture where both require each other in a "perverse symbiosis." However, the narrative focus is put on the anchor as a hero in the fight against evil. Using close-up shots showing even the tiniest body movements, low-key lighting, and low camera angles, Murrow performs the role of a lone masculine fighter like Will Kane of High Noon (Naumann 53). He is directly addressing his See It Now audience, but key statements like "We will not walk in fear, one of another," or "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home," extend their validity to post-Cold War viewers. The journalist's accusations against McCarthy therefore hold a double function: They not only refer to the film's plot, but simultaneously apply to present-day America in the age of terrorism. His journalistic investigations fulfill an almost didactic function reminiscent of the historical cycle America is about to repeat.

McCarthy's cameo appearance transforms a political into a fictional figure, Clooney's fictional appearance, however, is closely tied to his actual political involvement. Fred Friendly, Clooney's filmic alter ego, constitutes the fictional link to current America. His character presents the viewer with a challenge mentioned by Fluck. Watching Clooney on the big screen evokes the transfer of his public role. In interviews, the Hollywood star has repeatedly expressed his disapproval of the Bush administration (c.f. Brockes; Körte; Patterson). In return, the critical director has been denounced as unpatriotic and as a traitor by Conservatives. Especially his movies Three Kings (1999), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), and Syriana (2005) tackle the failures of recent American foreign and domestic policy. Friendly/Clooney therefore opens up two directions of interpretation. On the one hand, Fred Friendly works together with Ed Murrow to restore the social responsibility of journalism. In a second imaginary step this issue is then transferred into a critical assessment of the current political debate about freedom of speech using the spectator's cultural knowledge.

The movie's mise-en-scène reinforces the claustrophobic and paranoid feeling of the early 1950s. The movie is shot almost entirely in closed public places, mostly in CBS Studio 41. Other fairly minor settings include a bar, the U.S. Senate, and the Wershba apartment, which is, by the way, the only private place. Privacy does not seem to exist here, because it conveys the notion of safety. Paranoia is further intensified by several elevator scenes where both the actors and the spectator have to fit. Friendly and CBS chairman Paley, for example, are framed in a two-shot but divided by the elevator door in the middle. Other characters are framed by the studio's architecture, between walls, in door frames, or they are blocked by glass panels. The mise-en-scène conveys the feeling of being stuck, not being able to get out. Freedom is lost.

The cultural conformity of the Eisenhower era is subversively criticized. Before the arrival of affirmative action, Cold War cinema was marked by the dominance of white and predominantly male characters.5 The newsroom staff consists mostly of male journalists embodying a settled, strong masculinity in a "time of Patriarchy Unbound" (Doherty 54), most prominently See It Now host Murrow, co-producer Friendly, CBS chief executive Paley, or editor Joe Wershba. Reminding us of Rick's café (Doherty 54), the journalists wear suits, shirts, ties and strictly violate non-smoking regulations. Women play minor roles, like CBS co-worker Shirley Wershba, or jazz singer Diane Reeves. Wearing a dark dress and almost no make-up, Shirley Wershba remains in the background (gender- and plot-wise), performing a rather traditional gender role. The same holds true for the representation of ethnic difference. Ethnic minorities, too, seem to be marginalized in the film. Jazz singer Diane Reeves ironically comments the plot development in her songs, such as "TV is the Thing This Year," or "I’ve Got My Eyes on You," but she is left out in the narration. African American Moss and Bulgarian Radulovich 'play' themselves in the documentary parts. Only Jewish Fred Friendly is a round character and contributes to the plot. In addition to the stylistic devices, the cultural make-up of the 1950s is epitomized in Good Night, and Good Luck in order to evoke the imaginary process of the viewer.

5 Conclusion

Good Night, and Good Luck offers a glimpse of television history, but it is a mere simulation in the sense of Baudrillard since it creates its own interpretation of history. However, it triggers an immediate aesthetic experience through cinematic style recapturing the early days of the tube during McCarthyism, and through the image transfer of the fictional and real main characters. The viewer enters a time capsule that reincarnates Cold War America watching the movie. The text provides an immediate and direct experience, especially through its cinematography and mise-en-scène, and thereby recaptures the look of post-War media. It constitutes the basis for activating the imaginary part of the reception process pointed out by Fluck where historical themes and characters are transferred to twentyfirst-century America. The personal knowledge gained about Cold War America is enriched with the cultural and social knowledge about post-Cold War America. In that regard, the character of George Clooney/Fred Friendly holds a special position since Clooney is known as a critical observer of neo-conservatism. The CBS journalists attack McCarthyism in the movie, but the imaginary part enables a connection to Clooney attacking the Bush administration.

The character constellation and the filmic devices analyzed in this paper open a space of articulation in the post-9/11 political discourse. Using the viewers' dissatisfaction with the current political situation, the text offers a cultural articulation potential of a young generation that may not be familiar with McCarthyism. Watching the Murrow-McCarthy dispute on screen, however, the audience will recognize that American history does seem to repeat itself. They will furthermore realize that the production suggests one possible solution to the contemporary dilemma: America needs new formats of investigative journalism, like See It Now.

1 See It Now is a CBS news program (1951-1957) hosted by anchor Edward Murrow and has gained reputation by its critical coverage of the McCarthy trials.

2 Considering the facts that cast and crew were working for 'scale' ("Other Movie Information") and that an average Hollywood film cost about $102.8 million in 2003 ("Hollywood film budgets top $100m"), Good Night, and Good Luck can be considered a low-budget production.

3 He uses Rita Hayworth in Gilda as an example (44).

4 I will follow the notion of authenticity as it is understood in Cultural Studies. Authenticity is a critical concept initially refering to "the quality of being true or authentic" ("authenticity"). However, post-structuralist debate has increasingly criticized the essentialist characteristic of this concept and relates it nowadays to the mechanisms of discourse (Barker 9). In the context of this essay authenticity is constructed through this distinct 1950s film form and style, but on a more abstract level it serves as a marker of quality because the movie wants to convey a political message.

5 The appearance of White male (Anglo-Saxon Protestant) characters was a typical feature in Classic Hollywood cinema. For further reference see Bernardi's anthology Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness published in 2001.


Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Joseph Cotten, Agnes Morehead, Ray Collins. Kinowelt Home, 1941.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Dir. George Clooney. Perf. Dick Clark, Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore. Allied Filmmakers, 2002.

Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment. Dir. Robert Drew.Direct Cinema, 1963.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden. Warner Home, 1964.

Gilda. Dir. Charles Vidor. Perf. Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1946.

Good Night, and Good Luck. Dir. George Clooney. Perf. George Clooney, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels. Warner Independent Pictures, 2005.

High Noon. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Perf. Cary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell. Republic Pictures Home, 1952.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Siegel. Perf. Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates. Artisan Home Entertainment, 1956 [2002].

The Manchurian Candidate. Dir. John Frankenheimer. Perf. Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey. Twentieth Century Fox Home, 1962 [2000].

Primary. Dir. Robert Drew. Drew Associates, 1960.

Syriana. Dir. Stephen Gaghan. Perf. Kayvan Novak, George Clooney, Matt Damon. Warner Home, 2005.

Three Kings. Dir. David O. Russell. Perf. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999.

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