Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck


Clooney Chronicles Fascinating Chapter of TV Journalism

It seems almost unbelievable that fifty years ago in America, a modern-day witch-hunt took place that destroyed reputations and ruined lives. When Senator Joseph McCarthy began accusing people of being “card carrying” members of the Communist Party, an ugly chapter in American history was penned, and only undone by those brave enough to question his methods and motives. Pioneering television journalist Edward R. Murrow was one such person who stood up to McCarthy, despite fears of reprisal not only from the tyrannical senator, but also from his own boss and network.

Good Night, and Good Luck is director George Clooney’s telling of this story, a compelling and fascinating look into a period of national fear and paranoia. It is an excellent film, and should be required viewing in every history class.

The year is 1953. TV journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Straitharn) and his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney), decide to run a story investigating Milo Radulovich, a man kicked out of the Air Force for being a Communist sympathizer. Knowing McCarthy would retaliate, Murrow and Friendly decide to directly engage McCarthy, exposing him and his tactics on national television.

Good Night, and Good Luck (Murrow’s trademark sign off) works not only as a time capsule, but as a drama about men who refused to sit still while tremendous injustices were happening all around, and sometimes to, them. Shot in stark black-and-white, the film looks like a newsreel (using a lot of actual news footage from the period, including McCarthy himself), and Clooney adds stylistic touches to make it feel like a TV news broadcast (swish pans, constantly focusing cameras, zooms, etc.).

After appearing in movies for over twenty years, David Straitharn finally gets the role of a lifetime. He completely disappears into Murrow, unearthing an intense performance of determination and courage. I really liked the fact that Murrow isn’t really all that personable, but we admire him anyway. Straitharn more than deserves an Oscar nod for his work here.

The supporting cast is also good (Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels), but there are two performances who match Straitharn in intensity. One is Ray Wise, whose sad portrayal of accused anchorman Don Hollenbeck is downright heartbreaking. The other is Frank Langella, who plays William Paley, Murrow’s boss. At one point the tension is so thick between them, you could cut it with a knife--a credit to both actors.

There is no score in Good Night, and Good Luck, only a few interludes by a jazz singer (Dianne Reeves). This creates an eerie stillness throughout the entire film, and as things get more dangerous for the broadcasters, we are hanging on every word. The only drawback to this technique was that I could hear everything in the theater normally masked by sound (people eating, whispering, etc.). While very effective on film, it enhanced the distractions around me. Weird.

If I had any complaint to voice, it would be the “tip of the iceberg” feel we get at the end. The movie is mostly plot, and we get little insight into Murrow as a person. There are little hints (like he hates doing entertainment fluff pieces), but little else. We know that he is married, but never see his wife. In fact, the focus of the movie rarely leaves the TV station, and never departs from the immediate circle of journalists. It is a small peeve, but I would have enjoyed getting to know these characters more intimately.

Bookending the main story is a Murrow speech in 1958, where he shares his concerns about TV becoming a wasted medium. If he could see what hits the airwaves today, he would probably be appalled. I think he would be proud of this movie, however, as should director Clooney and all those involved.

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