Good Night, and Good Luck

good-night-and-good-luck-11A longtime member of the John Sayles troupe, David Strathairn plays close to the vest. He started out badly, as an overemphatic Robert De Niro clone in Sayles’ debut Return of the Secaucus 7, but he soon developed a sort of expressive reticence. That style serves him perfectly as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, an account of the TV news reporter’s dust-up with red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in the mid-’50s. Strathairn’s Murrow makes a virtue out of lack of passion. Nobody could accuse him of nursing resentments or an agenda — he’s rather colorlessly dedicated to facts (like his TV contemporary Jack Webb). So when he risks everything to take on McCarthy, there must be a reason.

I enjoyed the movie as a snapshot of a time and a mood — the paranoia infecting all walks of life, the omnipresent cigarettes, the ability of politicians and television pundits to quote Shakespeare and assume that their listeners would be sophisticated enough to handle it (imagine that today). And there’s no question that the film’s message, that the powerful medium of television needs to buck its corporate masters and bring truth to the viewers of America, is particularly timely in an era when various lies and distortions about why we invaded Iraq were swallowed whole by most of the media. Good Night, and Good Luck gets credit for the above, though it lacks a certain sense of urgency, of drama. After all, we know how it all turned out — McCarthy discredited, Murrow vindicated — and the script, by director George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov, doesn’t find enough twists and turns in the factual record to create any suspense. The movie is scrupulously journalistic, sometimes to its credit, sometimes to its deficit as a movie.

Still, I’ll always sit for an intelligent film involving actual adult conversations. There’s a lot of cross-talk in Good Night, and Good Luck; busy men in newsrooms fire story ideas at each other, sometimes shooting them down in the same breath. The relationship between a married couple (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) who both work at CBS — against the network’s policy of employing married couples — is just about sketched in, but the actors turn their scenes into quiet conspiratorial comedy. Their fear of being found out stands in for the larger issue of the people whose names, rightly or not, have found their way onto McCarthy’s unseen list of communists. Murrow, like many Americans at the time, doesn’t really care one way or the other about communism; what he’s after is abuse of power. His campaign would be equally valid if McCarthy were waving a list of known homosexuals and trying to scare the country about them.

At this point, it should be said that George Clooney (who appears in the film as Murrow’s producer Fred Friendly) is interested in using his power for good — not just politically. He does films like Ocean’s Twelve to keep himself bankable so that he and business partner Steven Soderbergh can make smaller, more challenging films. I wasn’t impressed by what Clooney, in his directorial debut, did with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; he took acidly farcical material and made it depressing. But the film also established that he at least had integrity, and wasn’t interested as a director in ingratiating himself with the mass audience. Good Night, and Good Luck is much more pleasurable, shot in nostalgic black-and-white by Robert Elswit and given a crackling pace by editor Stephen Mirrione. Clooney, whose father spent years in broadcast news, clearly enjoys revisiting the salad days of the medium, when everything from comedy to drama to news was live. The real urgency in the film comes not from its narrative and resolution but from its milieu.

Clooney wears his mantle lightly. Murrow didn’t preach; he simply spoke sensibly and soberly for rationality and fairness, and so does Clooney. The movie is bracketed by a speech Murrow made years later at the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation. He talks about the responsibility of television to do more than “distract, delude, amuse and insulate” viewers — to be more than “wires and lights in a box.” That, moreso than any message about red-baiting and its parallels today (“If you’re not with us, you’re against us”), is what Clooney — who has done his share of distracting and amusing on TV — wants us to take with us. Far from biting the hand that fed him, Clooney has made a valentine to what television once was and — perhaps — can be again.

Explore posts in the same categories: biopic, drama

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