An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

                When Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin decided to hurl his handful of accusations across the fertile ground of the new Cold War, everybody listened.  He announced to the Senate, press and public that, “There are 200 card carrying communists in the U.S. government.”  From October 1953 until the Army-McCarthy hearings brought the man down in 1954, the country became polarized over the question of guilt by association.  Who was, or wasn’t a communist?  Who even knew one?  Who had been to a concert by Shostakovitch? 

                One man cast a giant shadow across McCarthy’s witch-hunt.  Edward R. Murrow had broadcast his daily wartime program, “This Is London,” from England and stood in post war America as a giant of integrity in broadcasting.  Murrow, enraged by McCarthy, decided to answer the senator’s slander with a “See It Now” broadside.  CBS lost sponsors, producer Fred Friendly backed Murrow, and the program aired. 

                Just as the Nixon administration nearly got away with Watergate, McCarthy nearly succeeded with his character assassinations.  He destroyed many careers, especially in academia and the entertainment field. CBS boss Paley was furious that Murrow was getting too close to mixing corporate and editorial at CBS.  Murrow, equally outraged at McCarthy for persecuting rather than investigating, was determined.

                Director George Clooney’s movie captures the chaos created by the time deadlines of a broadcasting studio.  His cast is effective in presenting the men who made the decisions – William S. Paley (Frank Langella), Fred Friendly (George Clooney ), and David Strathairn as Ed Murrow.  Strathairn who doesn’t look like Murrow, nevertheless catches the dignity, the integrity and the professional boldness that marked him. 

The focus of this show is Joseph McCarthy himself, brought to us wisely in actual film clips.  No actor could possibly be credible in representing this raving, destructive force of the ‘50s.  He is riveting in the way the climax of a horror show is riveting, right until that wondrous moment when Joseph Welsh lowers his voice and says “Have you no shame, sir?.”  And it was over.

                Patricia Clarkson, who can always be counted on to capture the essence of a character in time, plays Shirley, one CBS News employee married, against company rules, to another.  In one short zip of a scene, she puts on her dark lipstick, blots it, tosses the tissue in the wastebasket, combs her perfect pageboy, checks her final face in the mirror, and is off to work.  She catches the routine of an era perfectly. 

                In the hands of Director Clooney, black and white film and archival footage are powerful tools in recreating the tone of the time.  Murrow was rarely without a cigarette, newly lit, smoke curling around his face.  Most people smoked then, but Murrow’s style was distinctly his own.  He died, of course, of lung cancer a few years later when he was head of the United States Information Agency after his legacy became, and remained, the standard for every serious broadcaster. 


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