The first scene of Good Night and Good Luck occurs in 1958, four years after the historic confrontation between legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Communist-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy that is the main focus of the film.
The scene occurs at a conference of television journalists and shows them enjoying themselves, posing for pictures and trading stories in an atmosphere of general self congratulation. As they sit down, the keynote speaker, Murrow is waiting in the wings, just a dark silhouette billowing out cigarette smoke like some sort of chain-smoking dragon. When Murrow comes out on stage, solemn and serious and proceeds to berate his colleagues for selling out to easy programming and game shows instead of reporting the hard facts, we immediately understand him and his dedication.
When the movie goes back to 1954, we are treated to a frank look at the early days of television journalism and how Murrow and his small news team of his show See it Now managed to command the courage that no one else in journalism or the government had to bring down the dangerous senator. Aided chiefly by his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) Murrow sets out to trap McCarthy in his own lies claiming in one of his shows “We will not walk in fear, one of another.” It is important to note is that it was not difficult to disprove McCarthy, but rather to be the first to take a stand against him and the film documents this aspect well. With each drag on a cigarette, wipe of perspiration and rolled up shirtsleeve we understand the immense pressure the each member of the news crew is under. In some cases it is fatal with anchor Don Hollenbeck (emotionally and brilliantly played by Ray Wise) who, already suffering from depression, commits suicide under the scrutiny.
We all know that the “good guys” come out on top and McCarthy quickly tumbles as his own lies give out underneath him. However what makes Good Night and Good Luck a level above other historical movies/biopics is its insistence on great film technique. Most directors believe that if a film has enough historical goodies in it, it doesn’t need anything more (see Oliver Stone’s JFK et al). However Clooney has instilled his film with cinematic brilliance, so much so I was just as entertained by the film’s technique and camera shots as its story.
While Strathairn has received most of the credit, as he should, for his dead-on, almost eerily accurate, portrayal of Murrow, I was most surprised by Clooney’s work. He readily throws away his “sex symbol” status to portray the glasses-wearing and slightly hefty Friendly to a great success. However even more impressive is his work as director and screenwriter. In addition to his other directorial performance in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney has show to be a top-notch filmmaker.
Clooney skillfully chose not cast an actor in the role of McCarthy but instead uses film stock and actual addresses from the senator. This move brilliantly de-personifies McCarthy making him seem more as a part of national fear than as a person.
The film even manages to work in a disjointed romance between Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson without becoming awkward or distracting.
Another aspect of Good Night and Good Luck that lifts it above its peer historical films is the fact that its study is Janus-faced. Its purpose is not to point out the past but simultaneously to examine the present. While the glorious black and white cinematography suggest a deep division between right and wrong, truth and lie, lots of grey can be found in between. While using hard research and truth to bring down McCarthy, Murrow also is forced to give an interview with Liberace talking about when he plans to marry and endorses cigarette smoking. It retrospect, truth can be relative.
The other pertinent message for today is Murrow’s depiction of the news industry. Even after exposing McCarthy, CBS executives force Murrow’s show off the air in place of higher revenue sitcoms and game shows. At the end of the film we return to 1958 with Murrow’s scathing critique of news networks which recalls his quote: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.” It makes us wonder, if Murrow thought television news was past its prime in 1958, what are we watching now?
Archived article by Mark Rice