Film as Intersection between Forensic and Deliberative Rhetoric

Legally or not, I’m embedding a couple YouTube videos of scenes taken from the 2005 movie Good Night, and Good Luck, directed by George Clooney, and featuring David Strathairn as Ed Murrow, the CBS newsman largely responsible for bringing down Sen. Joe McCarthy. Starting at about 6:20 in the first video, a scene begins which features Joe McCarthy’s speaking on Murrow’s own show, See It Now. Then there’s an Alcoa ad. Then, at the very beginning of the second video, Murrow’s re-rebuttal starts. (Earlier in the film is Murrow’s first attack on McCarthy – that part’s good too.) It’s these two scenes, the rebuttal and re-rebuttal, that I want to focus on, though I think the whole movie is very rhetorically interesting, to say the least.

First question: Who plays Joe McCarthy?

If you answered, “Joe McCarthy,” give yourself a gold star. I think this is a savvy rhetorical move on the part of Clooney, et al., because it contributes to what I’ll call the collective ethos of this film. Alongside other components like the B&W cinematography, the dry wit of the screenplay, the sparse soundtrack, I think an atmosphere of authenticity emerges that suggests to the viewer: look, this is 1954. We could rightly label this “delivery,” too, but I prefer collective ethos, because I see the different facets of the movie coming together to create a certain “voice” and sense of credibility that seems analogous to Wayne Booth’s idea of the implied author. Implied filmmaker, maybe.

Clearly this movie favors Murrow. Anyone who knows George Clooney’s politics knows he’d have nothing nice to say about Joe McCarthy. With this in mind, it’s interesting how Clooney’s camera-eye makes strong rhetorical suggestions about how the audience ought to react to each speech. As McCarthy speaks, the camera looks upon different CBS employees, people on the street, and ends up on Bill Paley (played by Frank Langella), the owner of CBS. These people all look either scared, or nervous, or, in Paley’s case, maybe a little miffed. Here! the movie seems to suggest. Here’s how to feel about this fear-mongering whackjob’s speech. Look at all these good people whose lives stand to be ruined.

When Murrow speaks, by contrast, the camera-eye is respectful. It looks up to him, it stays on him, it hangs on his every word and expression. Murrow owns the camera. It’s pretty clear how the movie wants us to identify Murrow here – as Quintilian’s epitomic “good man speaking well.”

So. We have the rhetoric within the movie, and the rhetoric of the movie—the dramatized exchange between the senator and the newsman, and the rhetorical framing of these events by the film itself. Clearly, this is forensic rhetoric because it recreates a series of events from the past, an important rhetorical exchange from American history, in a way that encourages audiences to see these events from a certain perspective. I’d like to suggest, though, that movies like GNGL also constitute deliberative rhetoric because, through the mere reimagining of the past within the present, they ask viewers to apply the lessons and language of the past to current events and discourses. Implicit in GNGL, I would contend, is this enthymeme: We needed Murrow to stop McCarthy. Therefore, we need a Murrow now to stop the latter-day McCarthies.

So yikes. Where are our Murrows now? Fox? CNN? Ha.

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