The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, October 04, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Good Night, and Good Luck

Originally posted 11/21/05
Full review behind the jump

Good Night, and Good Luck

: George Clooney
: George Clooney and Grant Heslov
: Grant Heslov
: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise

The compliments I can think to ascribe to
Good Night, and Good Luck are not ones that apply to a lot of modern movies. It is quiet, measured, and thoughtful. It tells a story of large importance in simple and rational strokes, confident in its progress. Armed with little more than some dialogue, a few uncluttered interior sets, and an authoritative lead performance by the long-under-appreciated David Strathairn, George Clooney mounts journalist Edward R. Murrow’s clash with Communist-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy – a reporting feat that, in a time of hysteria, also succeeded by being quiet, measured, thoughtful and confident.

In a way it unfolds like a live-TV drama from that era, shot in no-nonsense black-and-white and rarely venturing outside the conference room, offices, and broadcast studios at CBS. For long stretches we simply watch as Strathairn performs transcripts of Murrow’s broadcasts, or as he and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), scrutinize newsreel footage of McCarthy. But the cumulative effect is both intense and satisfying, as we get some feel for the hysteria that led to blacklisting and the conviction-by-insinuation farce of McCarthy’s hearings. The constant fear of an enemy to our way of life, combined with a news media largely abdicating its role to question the powerful in favor of fluff and entertainment, will be familiar, and are likely the reason this movie is finding its way to us now.

It starts with the sense that something must be done. Though there are spies in our midst, and Soviet power a threat, McCarthy’s paranoia and the national zeal to round up anyone who resembles a Communist are threatening both the innocent and our country’s principles of freedom. Murrow is a giant of journalism – respected and trusted all over America. He has total control over his in-depth news program See It Now (and will pay out-of-pocket if offended sponsors walk), but as a means of paying the piper he must also conduct staged interviews with celebrities for the show Person to Person.

His nose for a story has not dulled, though, and when he reads a short news article about an air force officer discharged for being a “security risk”, with the indictment hidden in a sealed envelope, he sends out a crew. He is warned not to “take on McCarthy”. In his mind, the idea that a soldier can be punished by a court because of charges he cannot know or fight, or that allegations of past meetings taken by a person’s father makes them a potential spy and saboteur, is not the sort of thing that should go on in this country.

And the story gets attention even before it airs – displeased Air Force brass pay Friendly a visit and say, in essence, trust us, our information, which we cannot share with you, must prove him guilty, or why would we charge him? Word comes back to Murrow that salary he received while broadcasting on the radio in Europe will be identified by tortured logic as placing him “on the Communist payroll”. It is clear that to McCarthy, a “Communist” is anyone who disagrees with McCarthy, and Murrow is being warned.

But Murrow proceeds with his broadcast; sitting in his chair, the camera so close to his face and ubiquitous cigarette that Friendly can sit on the floor in front of him, and tap his leg with a pen to signal time. Clooney captures the rhythms of the television newsroom – a format still figuring itself out at this point – and this authenticity puts a little electrical charge into every scene. We see how a story is picked, shaped and sourced. We see the rungs of the ladder it must wend its way up and back down again, all the way to a network head (Frank Langella) who swears he will not dictate to the news division, but has a way of expressing “concerns”. We see Murrow frowning at a typewriter, trying to compose with what the facts will allow him to say.

We even get to watch two co-workers (Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson), who behave as if they have a secret they fear being discovered. They do, but it’s a benign secret after all that. And you might miss the point – that everyone has a private life they want to keep private. And at that time, when twenty years before the Communist philosophy had been novel and even sort of compelling to those of a rebellious mind, it was hard to find someone who had never attended a meeting or read a single piece of questionable literature, or had a friend or family member who’d done so. Especially when the list of forbidden meetings and literature got longer by the week.

In a series of increasingly bold reports, Murrow tries to restore that iron line between merely having “ties” and actually being a paid agent or threat to our country. McCarthy and other Red Scare boosters blurred that line and America suffered for it. He advocates that Americans have the right to face their accusers and see the evidence against them. McCarthy (played not by an actor but by numerous pieces of actual archive footage) demands television time to respond, Murrow provides it and McCarthy chooses not to address the debate, but instead accuse Murrow of being a Communist.

There’s an effort afoot in some quarters now to polish McCarthy’s record and re-invent him as a patriot vindicated by history. They have not seen the footage in this movie where McCarthy’s motives are as unambiguous as they are unheroic. It’s true that a handful of the people he accused turned out to be spies. They were punished. But he accused many others without evidence, and thousands were punished undeservedly, and McCarthy’s motives in the end looked more like those of a man carrying out a vendetta and seeking to accumulate power. To label someone a Communist sympathizer in those days could ruin their lives, and McCarthy wielded that weapon without hesitation against his critics.

Good Night, and Good Luck is not a grand or brilliant film. Its dialogue is serviceable, its spectacle undersized. It keeps a slow tempo and overstates its point. But Clooney knows what kind of movie he wants to make and it’s a uniquely refreshing cinematic experience. And Strathairn is worth it all, sober and incisive when doing what he does best, urbanely hiding his contempt when he must do another Hollywood puff piece. He makes us lament a seemingly lost age. But we’re still living this story – we’ve got lots of McCarthys around today, it’s the Murrows that seem to be extinct.


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