The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Sunday, February 19, 2006


A real disappointment - worthy but dull. The tone of it remains constant throughout (by which I mean there's no involvement of the audience through the contrast between emotional highs and lows), the settings remain almost exclusively limited to the CBS offices (I don't think there's one external shot) which induces claustrophobia without tension, there's little sense of conflict, little sense of the stakes being played for, little historical or social context, almost no human interest, almost no sense of what McCarthyism meant to ordinary Americans (many of whom had to live with the stigma of having been labelled "Un-American" for decades afterwards and were often unable to find work because of it) save for one poor nobbled schmoe whose role is limited to archive footage. In fact, the lasting impression of the film is "liberal media elite goes after straw man and gets him". There's no real sense of victory because there's no sense of the threat posed by McCarthy, or how popular he was. Shamelessly one-sided. And I say that as a liberal, and someone who agrees with Murrow (as portrayed here) and Clooney, and someone who wanted to like the film. It fails as art, and it won't win over the propellerheads in the Amnesian heartland, for whom it is far too cerebral. Two things I will concede - the lighting and the music (jazz numbers shot as live broadcasts) are terrific, but that's no real compensation, or reason enough to go and see the movie.

Apparently there's an episode of Lou Grant in which a young reporter has done a piece on a right-wing politician. Lou watches the tape and calls him into his office. "You really hate this guy, don't you?" "Sure I do," says the reporter. "I can tell. And I shouldn't be able to!" That's what this film makes me think.

Not a patch on All the President's Men (wherein there is a real, contaminating sense of dread), or Bob Roberts, or even The Insider. Not even as good as The Contender. And light-years away from the all-time greatest American political movie, The Manchurian Candidate.

P.S. There is one other aspect of the film to praise, indeed to be thankful for. I assume that Murrow's speeches in the film are taken from actual broadcasts: whether they are or not, they are intelligent, precise and elegant, often made up of extended and structurally complex (by today's standards!) sentences. They refuse to treat the audience as anything other than intelligent in turn, assuming it can follow allusion and make associations, and that it doesn't need to be led by the hand step by step through an argument. It's amazing to think that an American news programme used to be written in such a way, and got big audiences and swayed public opinion. In 1968 the average length of the TV soundbite was 42.3 seconds; by 1997 it was 9.9 seconds.


At 24 February 2006 at 15:54 , Blogger James Long said...

I agree with your assessment of Clooney's film. I thought he tried very hard to draw the viewer into the emotional world of the characters by presenting a number of 'personal' scenes but somehow none of them really hit their mark.

I did think though that the framing message of the film, as presented by Murrow in his speech at the recognition ceremony, was bravely spoken to the audience and media of today, even though it was 'given' in 1959. That television, if it is not an instrument used to engage with society, is simply a box of lights and wires.

At 24 February 2006 at 23:17 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

I've maybe been a little harsh about the film - there is an extent to which we should be grateful that it got made at all, and has got the publicity of Oscar nominations.

I don't doubt Clooney's goodwill or honesty, only the achievement of the film, either as entertainment or art.


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