Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Good Night, and Good Luck
Starring David Strathairn, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and George Clooney. Directed by George Clooney. Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Rated PG.
Made-for-TV Drama

George Clooney’s sharp historical piece finds nothing to fear but fear itself.


Arthur Miller saw the Red Scare and was reminded of the Salem witch trials. George Clooney saw the war hysteria that consumed our nation two years ago and was reminded of the Red Scare. The result is his second film as a director, Good Night, and Good Luck, which dramatizes the story of CBS news reporter Edward R. Murrow and his struggle to expose Sen. Joe McCarthy, who gave politics a new dirty word by hunting down supposed Communists in the U.S. government with contempt for guilt or innocence. The showdown between these men culminated in the 1954 episode of the feature news program See It Now that represented a coming of age for television journalism. This carefully researched film contains few errors of fact, though it considerably exaggerates Murrow’s role in McCarthy’s eventual downfall — newspaper coverage of the time did its part, as did the senator’s disgraceful performance during the Army-McCarthy hearings, televised to a disgusted American public by ABC. The movie paints Murrow as a lone crusader, and this was hardly the case. In our corner of the world, however, good filmmaking trumps dodgy history, and this movie has plenty of the former.

Shot in stylish black-and-white by cinematographer Robert Elswit, the film confirms Clooney’s considerable directorial talent. The story moves along sharply and economically, and his script co-written with Grant Heslov is brightly polished and full of clever, humorous dialogue. This workplace hums with its characters’ intelligence, and at the center is David Strathairn, giving a note-perfect impersonation of Murrow — down to the distinctive way he held a cigarette.

It isn’t all fun and games, though: The corporate pressures on big-time journalism provide major dramatic tension. Murrow’s producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney himself) acts as a buffer between his reporters and CBS higher-ups as far as chairman William S. Paley (Frank Langella), who fret about losing sponsors — the name Alcoa Aluminum looms large in their conversations. The journalistic compromises are everywhere, and they extend to Murrow himself, as he placates the network suits by giving softball interviews to celebrities on his show Person to Person. The funniest moment is when Murrow blandly asks Liberace when he plans to get married; Clooney delightfully undercuts his main character by having him end the interview with his personal sign-off phrase that forms the title of this movie.

Despite that scene, the film lapses too often into hero-worship, giving us little sense of who Murrow was and what drove him to risk the government’s wrath. There’s an awkwardly truncated subplot with Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as two CBS news employees whose marriage is an open secret because corporate policy forbids their relationship. If the movie’s trying to show McCarthyism hitting CBS people where they live, it doesn’t come across. The musical interludes, in which a chanteuse (Dianne Reeves) sings thematically related jazz numbers like “I’ve Got My Eyes on You,” are ham-fisted compared with the rest of the film.

The film begins and ends with Murrow’s 1958 speech decrying the rise of entertainment television at the expense of news. Either out of ingratitude or bravery (probably the latter), Clooney is criticizing the medium that first made him famous. Notwithstanding, the filmmakers’ anguish about the decline of tv journalism seems a tad misplaced. After all, Murrow couldn’t foresee a day when entire networks would be given over to news coverage — even if it’s too often about the disappearance of another attractive white woman. And even if tv journalists hadn’t recently found their collective spine, newer media like political weblogs would be around to dissect current events and cut through p.r. spin. The real issue is that people no longer trust network news or any other source of information as authoritative, and this film doesn’t address that.

Still, there’s no denying Clooney has picked up a terrific yarn in the story of Murrow’s battle against an ignorant, self-serving bully abusing governmental power. The director seamlessly knits together the dramatized portions of his film with historical television footage. This adds to the verisimilitude, and McCarthy’s grandstanding appearances — full of baseless accusations and outright slander delivered in a wounded, self-pitying tone — remind us what an almighty scumbag he was.

Yet the spirit of this sweaty man with a bad combover lives on today, which is why Murrow’s words resonate more than ever. You can’t help but think about the current White House when Murrow says the senator from Wisconsin “didn’t create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it, and rather successfully.” The timeless elegance of Murrow’s elevated language rings out when he says, “We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we ... remember we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.” Good Night, and Good Luck isn’t quite good enough to be a movie for all time, but for our own parlous era, it offers an inspiring example of what it means to defend freedom at home.

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