We see people eating dinner at an event of some kind as gentle jazz music plays. A group of men get their picture taken together. A man, Sig Mickelson, the head of CBS, makes a speech at a podium about Edward Murrow, a broadcast news journalist for CBS. “When World War II broke out, it was his voice that brought the battle of Britain home to us through his This is London radio series. He started with us all, many of us here tonight, when television was in its infancy with the news documentary show See it Now. He threw stones at giants. Segregation, exploitation of migrant workers, apartheid, J. Edgar Hoover, not the least of which, his historical fight with Senator McCarthy.” As Sig Mickelson begins to introduce Edward Murrow up to the podium, we see Murrow in profile, puffing on a cigarette and looking at his speech.
Edward R. Murrow takes the podium as the audience applauds. The screen behind him tells us that it is October 25, 1958. Murrow semi-jokingly refers to his controversial presence on the news throughout his career, before saying, “It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeyman with some candor about what is happening to radio and television…We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent. We have a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.”
The scene fades and we go back in time to CBS studios, October 14, 1953. We see two women getting into an elevator and gossiping with one another as text on the screen reads: “Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s America was overwhelmed with concerns about the threat of communism. Senator Joseph McCarthy made a public accusation that more than two hundred 'card-carrying' communists had infiltrated the United States government. Few in the press were willing to stand up against McCarthy for fear they too would be targeted.” The women get out of the elevator and we follow them down a wall. One of them, Millie, goes into an office, while the other woman, Natalie, goes and looks into a recording studio where a woman is singing a jazz song about television. Natalie then goes into another office and informs a man, Johnny Aaron, that Fred W. Friendly, a coproducer of Murrow’s show, is running late.
In another room in the office, Johnny finds Joe and Shirley Wershba. Johnny makes a joke about them being an item. When Johnny leaves the room, Joe and Shirley look at a loyalty oath to the network (“and to America,” Joe adds). When Shirley is hesitant to sign the loyalty oath, Joe assures her that Murrow signed it, and so she shouldn’t feel uncomfortable. Shirley looks at the exact wording of the oath, still uncomfortable, an Joe tells her, “I’m simply stating to CBS that I’m not a communist.” Shirley thinks that Joe should talk to Murrow about it, but Joe thinks he should sign it. “If you don’t sign this, are you and I a target?” Shirley asks, to which Joe responds, “If I don’t sign it, they’ll fire me.” Shirley kisses him, tells him to sign it, then says, “finally we can tell everyone the truth.” Evidently, Shirley and Joe are an item, but no one in the office knows it.
In another room, a group of CBS reporters watch footage of a speech given by Republican congressman Frank Keefe. The camera pans over to Joseph McCarthy, who makes a statement. Edward R. Murrow watches McCarthy on the screen intently. Fred Friendly turns off the footage and they discuss the latest stories for the upcoming weeks. Someone brings up the news of McCarthy, and the fact that he’s beginning to crack down on the threat of communism. No one wants to cover the story. After the meeting is dismissed, Murrow stays behind and wants to talk to Fred about a news story he heard about a U.S. Air Force officer named Milo Radulovich who is being discharged, most likely because members of his family are communists. Murrow mentions that the charges against Radulovich were in a sealed envelope and that nobody saw them. “He was declared guilty without a trial and told, if he wanted to keep his job, he had to denounce his father and his sister.” Murrow suggests they send Joe and another reporter to interview Milo and see if his story is worth covering. When Fred wants to know if Milo is being brought before McCarthy’s Committee, Murrow tells him that he is not. “Then it’s not McCarthy,” Fred says, looking at Murrow. Murrow isn’t so sure, and says, “Isn’t it?”
The scene shifts to five days later, and we see Fred, Murrow, and Sig Mickelson, the director of CBS, watching footage of Joe interviewing Milo Radulovich. As the clip ends, Sig turns to Murrow and Fred and says, “Well, that’s new. I don’t think you can call this a neutral piece.” Murrow counters, “The other side’s been pretty well represented for the last couple of years,” but Sig is disappointed and decides that the piece is not up to the network’s standards, in that it seems to skew in a certain political direction and will likely bring trouble to the network. Murrow says, pointedly, “I’ve searched my conscience. I can’t for the life of me find any justification for this. And I simply cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument. Call it editorializing if you’d like.” Sig is still worried that it puts the network in a compromising position, that it could possibly get the people who work for the network in trouble with McCarthy and those who believe that the network sympathizes with communism. Sig thinks that Murrow wants to go after McCarthy, and when Murrow insists that that’s not what they’re doing, Sig counters, “Well, you’re starting the goddamn fire.” Natalie interrupts to let Fred know that there are two military men in his office. Left alone, Sig agrees to talk to William Paley, the chief executive of CBS about the segment on behalf of the Milo story. He tells Murrow, “Alcoa won’t pay for the ads, and we probably won’t either. But nobody’ll stop you.” Murrow decides that he and Fred will split the cost of the ads themselves. Sig leaves, followed by Murrow.
Fred speaks to the men from the military in his office, who tell him they have not been allowed to see the footage of the interview with Milo Radulovich. Fred tells them that they’re still shooting the interview, but one of the men angrily interrupts to say, “How can we possibly approve and check the story that you are running in the limited amount of time you have given us?” Fred reminds the military men that they have been invited “to participate in this piece, not to approve this piece.” Going on, Fred tells them that they are running the story that Milo Radulovich was tried “without one shred of evidence.” The military man questions the fact that CBS and Fred do not have any evidence to counter the claim that Milo is a security risk. “Wouldn’t you guess that the people who have seen the contents of that envelope might have a better idea of what makes someone a danger to his country?” he asks, but Fred wants to know who has seen the contents of the envelope. The colonel, who has been silent, speaks up now, and urges Fred not to run the story, as it is “without merit.”
The next day, we see some of the footage of an interview with Milo Radulovich’s lawyer. Jesse Zousmer walks briskly through the office, as everyone prepares to broadcast the story.
The movie is shot in black and white, a detail that is notable from the moment it starts. The first scene takes place at a dinner event in 1958. People sip cocktails and smoke indoors. These period details perfectly match up to the year in which the film takes place. The fact that it is shot in black-and-white further transports the viewer to the era. Interestingly enough, the film was shot in color, but then color-corrected to black and white in post-production. While there was undoubtedly color film in 1958, the use of black and white in Good Night, and Good Luck helps to orient the viewer in the middle of the 20th century. It also highlights some thematic elements of the film. As we come to find out, the film is about how a free press can expose the truth about complex political matters, and Edward R. Murrow’s interest in going against the grain to expose a more determined right and wrong. Murrow, in seeking to expose the truth, was invested in looking more deeply at an issue and exposing more complex corners of the justice and political system. For him, there is sometimes a black and white, a right and wrong, and journalism cannot simply pander to an illusion of even-handedness for all matters. The greyscale of the filmed images themselves calls to mind this interest in complexity, and highlights the seriousness of Murrow’s work.
Edward R. Murrow was a controversial, but heroic figure in television news media. The film shows his rather iconoclastic position within his industry in the first framing scene, a dinner held in his honor. The head of CBS News introduces him as a brave and formidable journalist. In our first glimpse of him, he is anxiously puffing away on a cigarette and reviewing his speech in the wings. His anxiety, seriousness, and chain-smoking separate him from his more charismatic coworkers, and as he takes the podium, he remains serious and straightforward. Wasting no time to speak his mind, he talks about the fact that the media is complacent, that viewers do not want to think about difficult issues, and that mainstream television is made to “distract” and “delude.” Thus, from the moment we meet him, we see that Murrow is a man who has no qualms with railing against the establishment and delving into topics that might make others uncomfortable, because he sees it as his duty to society as a journalist.
Murrow’s relative separation from the proceedings and from others at his network is portrayed in the way that this section at the dinner is shot. We see not only Murrow at the podium making his speech, his grave expression as he delivers his sobering address. Indeed, the camera travels around the room and we confront his audience as they listen to his provocative speech. In many ways, he is indicting his colleagues for not speaking up enough, for not fighting hard enough against corruption. The attendees of the dinner do not look offended; rather they maintain a rather serious composure as they listen to Murrow speak. These shots show us that although Murrow may be serious, and may lack a certain smiley charm that we typically associate with a news journalist, he is also highly respected in his field. People listen to him, and trust him to tell the truth.
Indeed, we see that people trust him so much that they are willing to let him report on subjects that are against the network’s interests. When he brings the case of Milo Radulovich to Fred Friendly, his associate, Fred is skeptical at first, but does not take long to come around to seeing Murrow’s point. Soon enough, they are meeting with Sig Mickelson, the head of CBS. Sig argues that if Murrow reports on the issue of Milo Radulovich—the fact that Milo didn’t receive a fair trial, and was only discharged from the military for having communist family members—he will lose support from the network, which has ties to certain political organizations. If Murrow wants to produce the story, he and Fred will have to do it themselves, as advertisers will not be interested in participating. Prospects look bleak for Murrow’s story, and yet Sig still respects and allows Murrow to pursue it, knowing that if anyone is able to get around social and political pressures, it’s Murrow.
Thus we see that Murrow is positioned as a heroic figure from the start, a man with the odds stacked against him who is still working towards what he feels is right. Not only is he confident enough in his position to go against the wishes of the network, but he and Fred even take on the military. From the moment Murrow becomes interested in Radulovich’s case, there are people who argue that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, that he is compromising one organization or another. Murrow and Fred remain strong, however. To Sig’s assertion that Murrow is editorializing by taking on Joseph McCarthy, Murrow asserts that in this instance, there is a right and wrong, that there are not always two equal right answers on either side of the debate for every story. Then, when the two military representatives confront Fred about the fact that he has no idea what kind of intrusion he is making into their work, he calls them out on not being transparent about the charges against Radulovich. Together, Murrow and Fred are poised to speak truth to power and fight courageously for the truth.