A constant cloud of smoke lingers in the air, but if you can manage to see through it, then you’ll surely understand why 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck. received the accolades that it did.
Set in 1953, Good Night, and Good Luck. (directed by George Clooney) tells the story of radio and television journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his famous conflict with conservative U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy.
Murrow and his CBS team used their television program See it Now to combat the excesses of senator McCarthy, who was most notorious for leading an anti-communist witch hunt in the early 1950s. On his show, Murrow dared to speak out against McCarthy and his methods. This led to a fight between the two, which escalated when McCarthy, unsurprisingly, accused Murrow of communist leanings.
Murrow never gave up his fight and continued to tenaciously attack the senator. His struggle has been credited with turning public opinion against McCarthy. Murrow’s actions are also a prime example of how journalism can be used as an effective political tool. And Good Night, and Good Luck. provides a high-energy glimpse into one of American journalism’s highpoints.
Clooney does more than proves his chops as a director in a mere 93 minutes; he also captures the zeitgeist of an entire era. I would go so far as to say that the movie is nostalgia-inducing, which is odd, considering I was born forty years after Murrow’s crusade.
But that’s the effect Good Night, and Good Luck. has. The weaving together of actual newsreels with black-and-white shots integrates past and present, fact and fiction.
In an ingeniously sly move, Clooney even makes McCarthy play himself by solely on real footage of McCarthy. The actors playing the members of the CBS team react to the actual senator; they interact, quite literally, with history. Funnily enough, according to a review in the British newspaper The Telegraph, young test audience members critiqued the “actor” playing McCarthy for being “boorish” and over-zealous. Little did they realize the “boorish” actor was in fact McCarthy himself.
Clooney no doubt intended this; McCarthy’s words do not require over-acting or exaggeration to sound strong. And his choice to use the real McCarthy draws an interesting parallel between actor and politician. As Clooney’s film makes clear, 1950s America was shaped not only by politicians behind closed doors in Washington, but also by the media.
Frankly, McCarthy makes us cringe. We can viscerally feel the same things television audiences decades ago might have felt. Politics, Clooney seems to imply, is just like any other a performance. It is the role of objective journalism to critique politics.
Apart from its clever twist on the period drama, another reason for the film’s salience is that the themes it exposes remain important today (truth, civic responsibility, and the role of mass media to name several).
The last theme, namely, the role of mass media is one close to Clooney’s heart. Clooney briefly studied journalism in school and his father worked as a television anchor. After Clooney’s stint as a journalism student, he went on to become a fixed member of Hollywood’s A-list.
It makes sense, then, that the media would fascinate Clooney. As a director, Clooney evaluates the American media from a different perspective. Usually the object of media attention, here he is the evaluator. From the film, we can infer that he is not entirely pleased by what he sees.
Good Night, and Good Luck. urges journalists to reclaim Murrow-style journalism. This is a message made explicit in the opening minutes of the film. Strathairn, stoic as ever, delivers a speech in front of Radio Television Digital News Association, “We have a built in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information…our mass media reflects this.”
He rails against “complacency” and asks his audience — both the conference attendees and moviegoers — to expect more from mass media than mere distraction.
The film quite obviously (but not unsophisticatedly) appeals to the makers of mass media and all of us who consume it. In today’s world, where media forms are constantly evolving and old-fashioned journalism is becoming more and more obsolete, Good night, and Good Luck. reminds us of the crucial link between good journalism and democracy.
The best part is that the movie does all of this with a sense of style and knowhow that would make the Mad Men producers blush. As if it were a testament to Murrow himself, Clooney’s film does precisely what Murrow claimed media has the potential to do. His film is entertaining and engaging, but conveys a deeper message.
Like I said earlier, if you can manage to see past the cigarette smoke, the impeccable costumes and even Clooney’s own winking charm, then you’ll see the power this small film wields.