“Golden Age” sometimes seems like an incessant reference in criticism and the like, one that often indicates more the lack of iconoclastic risk in the present than an intrinsic brilliance in the past. But in regards to the Golden Age of television documentary, both bold risk and brilliance combined at the dawn of the invention of TV with the legendary programming of Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly on CBS. Sadly, investigative commentary on the tube, with some exceptions of course, seems to have since declined almost as if a dangerous coal slowly extinguished. But to look at the recently released four DVD set entitled The Edward R. Murrow Collection (available at docurama.com and other retailers) is to understand the intensity and sheer quality that this TV franchise held more than half a century ago. The collection includes the best of the documentary series (or closer to what would become a “news magazine”) See It Now that includes interviews with JFK, a young Fidel Castro and Louis Armstrong, as well as Harvest of Shame, a trenchant documentary expose on the plight of migrant farm workers broadcast on Thanksgiving night 1960 and which many Americans, so unfamiliar with what was happening in their own country, refused to believe was true.
Perhaps most important and strangely disconcerting is the disc The McCarthy Years, which begins with Murrow’s famous report about Lt. Milo Radulovich, who was unduly discharged from the Air Force solely because his father and sister supposedly read “subversive” literature. The Radulovich story began the showdown between Murrow and Senator McCarthy that soon developed into a full confrontation. In one brilliant segment, Murrow uses McCarthy’s own words from recordings and archived film clips to take the Senator apart with tactical brilliance and expose him as the shameless prevaricator he was. It’s strangely familiar to hear McCarthy talk of how the “extreme left wing” press attacked him, but refreshing to see Murrow refute him by going through all the major dailies to show that criticism hardly came from The Daily Worker but from thoroughly mainstream papers. Furthermore, to see McCarthy in action with all his bluster, desperation, and demagoguery (especially when he goes after Murrow in a rebuttal) is uncomfortable, not least because he has a tenor that is familiar at all levels of our current government. Murrow and Friendly told stories of ordinary Americans that often became powerful commentaries on social and political issues rather than the kind of self-help-crime-fear-tragedy story that pervades what remains of “news magazines” these days. The investigative and critical pieces that they produced for mass consumption during a time of chilling political machination were instrumental in bringing about the opening of society that occurred in the following decade. Given the current political chill, it makes one nostalgic but also worried that, ironically, in 21st century America there may not be the venue to put up a similar challenge when another McCarthy arises.
Summer Docs on PBS
Beslan: Siege of School No. 1 (July 12 at 9 PM)
Part of the Wide Angle series (www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle), this 48-minute film does a good job of representing the harrowing scene that took place when Chechen terrorists took over a school in September 2004, holding more than 1,200 hostages for days. We learn that the main terrorist lost all his family in a Russian bombing raid and that many of the women who came with him didn’t realize they would be holding so many children captive. Maybe it’s the length of the film or the terms that Russian officials had in granting interviews, but one comes away with no real idea of how this horrific situation actually turned into a siege where 350 people died, half of them children, though one suspects Putin’s directive to “save the children at all costs” didn’t necessarily mean by negotiation.
The Brooklyn Connection (July 19th at 10 PM)
Part of this summer’s POV series (www.pov.org), The Brooklyn Connection is subtitled “How to Build a Guerrilla Army” and follows a Kosovan Muslim roofer in the County of Kings who raises money and buys arms to legally ship to Albania and smuggle into Kosovo to fight Serbians. He purchases a .50 caliber rifle in Pennsylvania saying he’s going on an elephant hunt and buys uniforms from a Hasid-run military surplus store. He attends fundraisers to shmooze with Wesley Clark and Richard Holbrook. He says that he can get anything to supply a guerrilla army shipped to him overnight in America and that gun dealers help him because he tells them he’s fighting a communist government. In one sense, it’s pretty astounding, especially after 9/11, and it makes one wonder not only if any weapons sold in the US have ended up with the insurgency in Iraq, but also if it would be as easy to outfit a leftist guerrilla army fighting a right-wing dictatorship.