December 11, 2013
The Graceful Power of Good Night, and Good Luck
"Unless we get up off our fat surpluses, and recognize that television, in the main, is being use to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture, too late." - Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn)
It's been nearly 60 years since Edward R. Murrow took on Senator Joseph McCarthy and helped to end his reign of terror. Even so, it maintains its place in our consciousness. It was a rare time during the early days of television when networks were still figuring out the medium. An intelligent journalist like Murrow could tackle complicated issues and make a difference. He incorporated the style of his radio work on Hear It Now into the new format and found creative success with See It Now. Despite this impact, it was only a matter of time before commercial concerns outweighed journalistic ideals. Murrow's battles with McCarthy and CBS are chronicled in George Clooney's brilliant Good Night, and Good Luck. Its graceful look at early TV has plenty to say about our news organizations today. The black-and-white presentation brings a classic feeling to a story that should be required viewing for anyone interested in journalism and its history in this country.
A glance at this film's subject might dissuade viewers who don't want a dry history lesson. That concern is understandable and reveals why the script from Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Ides of March) works so well. There are few grand speeches beyond what Murrow says in front of the camera. Instead, the characters feel down to earth and are hardly saints with perfect idealism. Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) understand that going after McCarthy could kill their careers. The pressure is clear in the eyes of David Strathairn, who brings great humanity to Murrow. Despite these nerves, the atmosphere behind the scenes is collaborative and charming. A large cast of familiar faces arrives for small roles and brings depth in limited screen time. Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr. lighten the mood as newlyweds can't reveal their marriage at work. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ray Wise shows the heartbreak of a guy ruined by communist accusations. It's a different time, and Clooney depicts that era without overdoing it.
What sets Good Night, and Good Luck apart is the slower pace that allows us to understand the issues being covered. The camera puts us directly into the room with the reporters who believe in what they're doing. Working in a smoke-filled haze, they battle the counterattacks from McCarthy and provide intelligent explorations of the issues. Strathairn recites lengthy monologues that are thrilling because of the high stakes. These sequences are shot in close-up, which avoids distracting us with fancy camera moves. The hand-held cameras never make it feel too clinical. It's a vibrant story that offers a chilling remember of what happens in times of paranoia. Murrow is a serious guy who barely cracks a smile; he recognizes the danger in their course of action. If they don't remain diligent, the wolves will circle and tear them apart. The dire fate of Wise's Don Hollenbeck shows what can happen when this vulnerability is attacked. The heartbreak in his eyes after the vicious criticism shows the possible impact of accusations run amok.
This story only works if we're on board with Murrow and believe in his decision to take on McCarthy. The key factor is David Strathairn, who brings the legend to life with a striking performance. His anger at watching the downfall of television (in 1958!) feels especially poignant during a speech that bookends the film. Unlike many prestige pictures, this isn't an extravagant period piece. Clooney shot the film on a $7 million budget, which feels like the right approach to the topic. All he really needs to do is put great actors in a room and let them talk. It's a thrilling story that ranks alongside the best films about journalism ever made. Despite the six Oscar nominations, I'd argue that Good Night, and Good Luck deserves a lot more attention. It says plenty about both America in the 1950s and the evolution of journalism since that time. Its 2005 release arrived during the middle of the Bush administration, so the "my country, right or wrong" idea was in full force. Like Murrow says in this film, deserting freedom at home is never the wisest choice.