Good Night and Good Luck
|David Strathairn||Edward R. Murrow|
|Robert Downey Jr.|
|Frank Langella||William Paley|
|Directed by||George Clooney|
Edward R. Murrow?s intrepid wartime broadcast reporting from London made him famous. Soon after his return home he hooked up with radio producer Fred Friendly to make a series of record albums, I Can Hear It Now, recreating historical and current events. CBS picked up on the idea and brought the team in to do a weekly radio news magazine series, Hear It Now. In 1951 the idea migrated again, to television, as See It Now. The show and its host became (and remain) the standards for integrity and relevance in the new medium. At the close of each program Murrow would sign off with his signature salutation, ?Good night, and good luck.?
In his remarkable movie about Murrow (David Strathairn) and his showdown with Senator Joseph McCarthy (himself), director and co-writer George Clooney rekindles spine-tingling echoes of that classic program. The period that the movie revisits is arguably one of the turning points in 20th century American history. The junior senator from Wisconsin was in the full cry of his reckless anti-communist juggernaut in the fall of 1953 when Murrow aired a program criticizing the Air Force for discharging, in a secret trial and without presenting evidence, an officer who had refused to denounce his immigrant father for reading a ?subversive? newspaper. The program stirred up a firestorm, and the Air Force reinstated the officer.
The Air Force program was a stalking horse. In March of 1954, Murrow and Friendly (Clooney) took the challenge directly to McCarthy himself, using the senator?s own image and voice from newsreel footage to expose and denounce his modus operandi of character assassination, half-truths, lies, and bully tactics. Murrow invited McCarthy to respond on a future program. McCarthy did, employing his familiar tactics of unsubstantiated smear against Murrow, and came off badly. A few months later in the televised glare of the Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy?s juggernaut came apart as attorney Joseph Welch chided the senator with the words ?Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last ? Have you left no sense of decency ??
McCarthy?s downfall was by no means inevitable. In early ?54 he still seemed an irresistible force, and in resisting him Murrow was risking his career and his freedom. Clooney perfectly captures the tensions and the drama of the moment. He has made several gutsy cinematic choices. The film is shot in black and white (the 50s themselves were not actually in b&w, however they may have seemed, but television was), which emphasizes the period. Clooney keeps most of the action within the cold corporate confines of CBS, concentrating the claustrophobia. And he uses Joe McCarthy as Joe McCarthy. ?If you have an actor do a recreation of Joe McCarthy,? the director has pointed out, ?every critic in the country would say we were overdoing it, making him a buffoon.? Like Murrow, Clooney uses clips and kinescopes to let the senator flay himself with his own knife.
David Strathairn is mesmerizing as Murrow. His face clouded in the haze of the cigarettes Murrow wore like an extra finger, nostrils breathing smoke, head tilted forward, eyes glancing up with a penetrating gaze, the actor speaks in Murrow?s clipped, measured cadences and exudes Murrow?s unflinching commitment to truth. There is every chance that the Oscar lists this year will be packed with biographical performances ; Strathairn?s Murrow belongs there along with Philip Seymour Hoffman?s Capote and perhaps Joaquin Phoenix?s Johnny Cash (which I have not yet seen.) The rest of the ensemble, headed by Clooney, is excellent. The banter between Murrow and Friendly is funny, and the bond it portrays is compelling. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play husband-and-wife writers on the Murrow team, forced into paranoid secrecy by the CBS edict against employees marrying within the organization. And Frank Langella is magnificently saturnine as the dark, powerful presence of William Paley, head of the network.
As much as anything, Good Night and Good Luck is a war movie. Scenes of assignments and strategies play like soldiers being sent out on a dangerous patrol, and scenes of anxious waiting for reaction feel like waiting for casualty reports. It?s a deliberate, conscious choice by a director who wants to remind us that the spring of ?54 was a time when a war was being waged for the soul of America. Clooney knows the news business from the inside. His father Nick was a news anchorman in Cincinnati (and later a host on American Movie Classics.) The director has also paced the movie with inserts of a jazz singer (Dianne Reeve) singing with a combo in a CBS sound studio. The numbers and the arrangements are culled from the repertoire of his aunt, the great vocalist Rosemary Clooney. It?s an off-the-wall choice, and like everything else about this movie, it works beautifully, contributing flavor and mood and period feeling as it separates the movements of the story. Good Night and Good Luck has wit, drama, and an urgent immediacy that makes your heart pound and your skin tingle as surely as any thriller. The movie opens and closes with Murrow?s famous 1958 speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, in which he castigated the industry for sliding into the abyss of frothy entertainment at the cost of its potential to educate and challenge. CBS by then had shunted See It Now into a series of specials that had more in common with Murrow?s other show, the pop-culture Person To Person, than the crusading news magazine that had taken on McCarthyism. "If they are right," Murrow concludes," and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box . Good night. And good luck."
© Text 2005 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be