Directed by George Clooney
Screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov
With David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Ray Wise, Jeff Daniels and Dianne Reeves
Rated PG; 93 minutes
Mainstream films that combine historical awareness, present-day political relevance and entertainment value are so rare that I feel like a nit-picking churl for criticizing Good Night, and Good Luck for not being better than it is. And it’s still a pretty good movie despite its shortcomings — especially for those of us who never thought “liberal” was a dirty word. Director/co-screenwriter/co-star George Clooney is to be commended for even getting a film made about the 1953-54 battles between CBS’ top newsman Edward R. Murrow and Red-baiting bully Sen. Joseph McCarthy, when most current moviegoers would be hard-pressed to distinguish among Joe, Jenny or Charlie McCarthy.
But admiration isn’t the same as enjoyment, nor is education the same thing as entertainment (though I believe they can go hand in hand). Don’t get me wrong: it’s heartening to see someone dramatize the climate of fear that ran through this country faster than an avian flu pandemic, and to draw the all-too-relevant parallels to today’s situation, when those in power exploit our collective and individual fears and (purposely) conflate dissent with disloyalty.
But Good Night, and Good Luck (the title is taken from Murrow’s on-air signoff) points up the problems in telling this type of story in two important, and related, areas. One is that the human side of the story — or the story of the flawed humans involved — either gets lost or seems extraneous. The other is that when a film is set up as (liberal) white hats vs. (right-wing) black hats, Clooney can conceivably be criticized for preaching to the choir.
First a bit about Clooney’s methods. He focuses intently on Murrow (David Strathairn) and his team at CBS News, including producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) and colleagues Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), as well as their internal battles with CBS chairman William Paley (Frank Langella). Murrow, already famous for his World War II radio broadcasts from Britain, is the host of the serious news program “See It Now,” as well as the fluff-headed celebrity interview show “Person to Person.” (There’s a hysterical re-creation of Murrow’s interview with Liberace, when Murrow asks the closeted-but-flamboyant schmaltzmeister about his marriage plans. Ah, the innocence.)
Clooney shoots in black-and-white, the better to emphasize the seriousness of our heroes’ efforts and to provide a period tone to the film. I wonder, though, if shooting in color wouldn’t have set up a sharper contrast between the newscasts themselves and the real, workaday world—showing that even these small-screen, black-and-white programs had an enormous impact in the days before information overload and the 24-hour news cycle.
Robert Elswit’s cinematography, using tight compositions and frequent close-ups, helps Clooney create a strong sense of claustrophobia, emphasizing the “us against the world” struggle as Murrow takes on McCarthy (who is only seen in period news clips and film). Stephen Mirrione’s editing captures the split-second timing and enormous team efforts that go into producing 30 minutes of live TV news. It also captures the pretty much constant cigarette smoking of nearly everyone in the cast. This cast smokes more cigarettes than Bette Davis did in any three of her films. Surgeon General’s Alert: simply seeing this movie can cause cancer and lung disease.
But enough bad jokes. I left this movie admiring Murrow’s courage and dedication but still knowing next to nothing about him. Obviously he is driven by something, but we see almost nothing of his interactions with anyone outside the newsroom, except for Langella’s Bill Paley. These verbal duels, between news “star” and bottom-line businessman, are among the most complex and interesting elements of the film, with both men recognizing their mutual need while at the same time exerting their power to defend their principles. Clooney resists making Paley a simple bean-counting bad guy, to the film’s benefit.
Perhaps Clooney is saying that the only part of Murrow’s life that really mattered to him was his work, but in an age when we expect even the most heroic hero to be at least something of an anti-hero, it makes him seem less than human. Like the black-and-white cinematography, it can be distancing. Strathairn, an excellent character actor, does his best to suggest levels of complexity, but most of the time he’s playing a paragon, not a person.
When Clooney does try to inject a human story into the drama, Good Night seems to be marking time until the next scary-fascinating McCarthy clip or rapid-fire editorial pitch meeting. For example, Downey and Clarkson’s Joe and Shirley Wershba are married co-workers, in contradiction of CBS rules, and so must keep their relationship secret. Until they find out that pretty much everybody knows they’re married, and has ignored it. Until there are budget cuts needed and they are asked to sacrifice their jobs so other people won’t have to be let go. Until… (yawn). It’s always a pleasure to see both of these actors, but what does this plot have to do with anything?
Clooney is more successful weaving in the downfall of newscaster Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), a CBS colleague being hounded for being a “pinko” and quietly cracking under the pressure. There’s a nice scene where Hollenbeck asks Murrow to go to bat for him, with Murrow essentially saying he has to pick his battles, that he can’t take on both Joe McCarthy and the Hearst newspaper columnist who is attacking Hollenbeck. It dramatizes nicely the burden Murrow feels — that of being a hero to his co-workers.
As for Clooney preaching to the choir: again, there’s little question where his sympathies lie. At the same time, Clooney isn’t so much attacking McCarthy or his present-day reincarnations as the shivering, quivering fear they inspire in all kinds of people — that someone will find out we attended the “wrong” meeting, signed the “wrong” petition or gave money to the “wrong” cause. By showing the brave response of Murrow and Company, he hopes to inspire us all to stand up for what we believe. But by making his Murrow an often remote figure, Clooney may induce more hero-worship and less spine-stiffening than he intended. I left this film asking “Where are today’s Murrows?” when I should have said “We all have to be Murrows today."