Good Night & Good Luck

In 1953 the country was in the early stages of the Cold War. Our way of life was under attack, or at least, that’s how it seemed, and there are always those who feel that the best way to preserve freedom is to curtail it. One such person was the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy. He became obsessed with the possibility of communists in the military and government and he stretched and often exceeded the law to bully them into confessions. In McCarthy’s mind, brief flirtations with socialism–attending a meeting twenty years earlier, subscribing to a newsletter–equated to sympathy or even complicity with the Reds. Lives were ruined over less during this time.

Eventually, veteran newsman Edward R. Murrow decided to take him on, using his CBS new show See it Now as his forum. Murrow had made his reputation by doing radio broadcasts from London during the blitz. At that time he was known as the most trusted man in America. If anybody had enough credibility built up to challenge McCarthy, it was Edward R. Murrow.

Good Night and Good Luck is the story of the conflict between these two very different men. Directed by George Clooney, this is a taut and claustrophobic film. There’s no fat here, hardly a wasted frame, in fact. Clooney focuses on the central conflict and little else. If you added narration this could be a History Channel special. A great deal of care and attention was put into getting the look and sound right and from what I’ve read the facts straight. Not being an expert on the look of 50’s newscasts or the history of this particular conflict, I can’t comment on how close they came but it seems right.

Of course this verisimilitude comes at a cost. There’s scant characterization. We see what Murrow does but we have no idea why he’s doing it. Given that, this film could have been more of an exercise than a full fledged movie.

Good Night and Good Luck avoids that fate, mainly because it is so skillfully executed. If they still awarded Oscars for black and white cinematography, Robert Elswit would be a lock. Clooney and Grant Heslov’s screenplay is masterful, full of tension and great dialog. The look of the film is terrific.

The performances really make the film great however. David Strathairn inhabits Murrow in the same way that Philip Seymour Hoffman inhabited Truman Capote or Jaime Foxx did Ray Charles. Strathairn’s Murrow is a cool almost cold intellect. I loved the chaotic production meeting scenes where he sits silently while everybody else is pitching their story ideas as hard as they can. He’s always in control of himself and the room. His news delivery is straightforward, almost monotone, and his style is to present the facts of his case in this relentless manner until the argument is won.

The supporting performances are terrific also. Clooney shines as Fred Friendly, Murrow’s producer. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson are good as a couple working in the newsroom and hiding their marriage because such unions are forbidden by CBS policy. Frank Langella is wonderful as William Paley, the legendary head of CBS who says he won’t interfere with news content but does.

I gather that there’s some controversy over this film. It’s scary to think that McCarthy sympathizers have crept back into the political mainstream but that’s our world. In any case, this really isn’t a film about politics; it’s about the media.

You see, Murrow did win. His pieces on McCarthy’s tactics altered public opinion enough that elements of the Republican party could finally bring McCarthy down. But it was a costly victory. Murrow lost his sponsor, his timeslot and eventually his show. The conflict cost him far more than it did McCarthy. 

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