A good day for the good guys
The white hats triumph once more as Good Night, and Good Luck, in glorious black and white, re-creates the historic clash of two crusaders.
By STEVE PERSALL
Published November 3, 2005
[Photo: Warner Independent Pictures
|From left, George Clooney (as Fred Friendly), Robert Downey Jr. (as Joe Wershba) and David Strathairn (as Edward R. Murrow) play out a classic confrontation between journalists and Sen. Joseph McCarthy in Good Night, and Good Luck.
Good Night, and Good Luck is filmed in gorgeous shades of black and white, but conceived in only the starkest essence of those colors. There are good people whom director and co-writer George Clooney wishes to honor, and there's one bad guy hanged by his own words. Clooney does everything he can to tighten the noose.
Wearing the white hats, so to speak, are the employees of CBS News who challenged the divisive, bullying tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy during his Cold War crusade against communist infiltration of the United States. That McCarthy overstepped the bounds of decency and freedom isn't arguable; that the Red threat he railed against had any substance isn't discussed. It's the power of the press vs. the pressure of power, and only a hermit would fail to recognize contemporary parallels.
Cloaking himself in the American flag, McCarthy pried into any private life that hinted of leftist leanings. Refusal to submit was considered a confession of guilt. Guilt was contagious: Any sympathetic person could be branded a co-conspirator. Conspiracies were so vague that any opposition could be viewed as part of a single, larger plot.
CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow was widely viewed as the most trusted person on television, an infant medium that was capturing the mass imagination. Turning that imagination into reasonable thought was Murrow's own crusade, and opposing McCarthy's reckless tactics was his battlefield. Good Night, and Good Luck - Murrow's signature signoff line - depicts their mano a mano showdown for the nation's conscience, offering a lesson in where they succeed and fail to modern politicians and reporters.
Clooney's re-creation of these events is by turns brilliant and dissatisfying, yet enough of the former to be considered one of 2005's better films. Some material here begs for more explanation, a few themes could be better defined and certain subplots require a stretch of allegorical thought to figure how they fit. But the overall sense of mood and morality is remarkable, the ensemble cast impeccable, and the results impressive indeed.
McCarthy is shown only in archival footage, and David Strathairn's uncanny impersonation of Murrow seems at times to be lifted from film too. Strathairn seldom raises his voice above on-air delivery level, and changes expressions even less. But so much is happening beneath that placid surface.
Rather than being played as a hero, he's portrayed as an ordinary man with an extraordinary platform for doing what he feels is right. The weight of that responsibility makes him sag a bit. It's a superbly nuanced performance, as effective as Philip Seymour Hoffman's more flamboyant mimicry of another celebrity in Capote.
Clooney takes on the understated role of Fred Friendly, Murrow's producer on the See It Now program, where the clash with McCarthy took shape. Their conversations about the risks of challenging the senator are the film's core and its most consistent dynamic. Other fine actors chime in occasionally: Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as secretly married newsroom colleagues, Frank Langella as CBS president William Paley, and Ray Wise as a firsthand victim of McCarthyism. Their contributions are almost too peripheral, merely brush strokes in a political mural.
As a director, Clooney and cinematographer Robert Elswit revel in 1950s period detail; fashions, mores, cigarette smoke clouds and primitive technology. The film's compacted narrative keeps almost everything within CBS walls, with the jarring exception of Dianne Reeves' interludes as a jazz club singer. Why? Because it's the sound of the era, not because she has anything to do with Murrow and McCarthy. It might seem a mistake were it not so expertly filmed.
Yet, finding fault with this movie is like ignoring a great thinker because he or she stutters. The delivery isn't as important as the message. Maybe that's Clooney's agenda: to make us consider the meat rather than the sizzle.
The Cold War had Murrow, Vietnam had Walter Cronkite and now Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever's next have Fox News Channel and Jon Stewart. Something is wrong with this picture. Good Night, and Good Luck is Clooney's passionate, possibly vain attempt to make it right.
Good Night, and Good Luck
Director: George Clooney
Cast: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Ray Wise, Jeff Daniels, Dianne Reeves
Screenplay: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Rating: PG; brief profanity, mature themes
Running time: 93 min.
[Last modified November 2, 2005, 12:06:07]
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