Certainly the focus of this film—Edward R. Murrow’s head on attack of then Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Senate Committee for UnAmerican Activities—an act of great bravery on Murrow’s and CBS’s part—is worthy of audience appreciation. Murrow’s reporting, his incisive appeal to his viewers that Americans were able to encounter ideas that threatened their system without censorship and arrestment of those involved, and his outright disdain for McCarthy’s methods of innuendo and lies is well documented and in this film is represented through an almost noir-like dramatization of real events interspersed with actual television and film footage of the period. The world McCarthy and his committee had created is brilliantly presented by Clooney and cinematographer Robert Elswit in cinematic terms through extensive use of rack-focus camera shots and a blurring of the background in many scenes, along with jumpy, held-hand camera effects that recreate the sense of early television and suggest the psychological condition of people involved in a time when it was sometimes difficult to clearly see the broader picture of world politics and where even the tiniest of questionable political behavior might jeopardize one’s career. W. H. Auden and others described the period as “The Age of Anxiety”; certainly it was a time that simply made one nervous to do anything out of the ordinary—or even sometimes within the ordinary , all which Clooney and Heslov reiterate through several dramatic episodes, particularly in scenes revealing the hidden marriage of Joe and Shirley Wershba (played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) [studio executives did not permit employees to be married] and the continual need for self-evaluation of personal sympathies or even relationships with those who might have had seemingly Communist connections [CBS news announcer Don Hollenbeck (played by Ray Wise) is attacked by newspaper columnists for having “pinko” connections which brings on his suicide; and, when Murrow (brilliantly played by David Strathairn) and Fred Friendly (played by Clooney himself) demand their staff tell them of any possible communist connections, one staff member suggests he should leave the team for having previously been married to a woman who had attended Communist Party meetings before he met her]. In short, it was a time of deep paranoia that effected everyone.
Finally, it comes down to a societal and institutional disdain for Americans themselves, a feeling by a few who believe they hold knowledge (and often have no better grasp of it that anyone else) that the general populace cannot and will not assimilate complex information. A few years ago I had lunch with then-editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sonja Bolle. When asked what books I was soon to publish on my Sun & Moon Press label, I replied that we had just published a translation by the French Oulipo writer, Raymond Queneau. “O, I love Queneau,” she gushed, much to my surprise. “He’s a wonderful writer. But, of course, we couldn’t possibly do a review of his work!” “Why not?” I naively responded. Oh, our readers couldn’t understand a review about his literature. You know, most newspaper readers read at the sixth grade level.