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See It Now

 

Good Night, and Good Luck

George Clooney, USA, 2005

Rating: 4.0

 

Posted: October 18, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

One leaves Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney's black-and-white vision of Edward R. Murrow's onscreen war with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, vividly aware that the current television landscape is, to put it mildly, sorely lacking in news anchors of Murrow's caliber. Indeed, for many viewers, it may be impossible to imagine that newscasters were ever as erudite, as unafraid to tackle politically powerful adversaries on issues of life-or-death substance (despite the very real danger to their careers) as Murrow (played by David Strathairn) and the crew of "See It Now," the CBS news program on which he took McCarthy to task during the height of the senator's infamous Communist witch hunt in the 1950s. "Is this real?" one person asked during the screening I attended. "Did people really talk that way on the air?"

The answer to the second question is yes: hard as it is to believe, people really did talk -- and act -- that way (they smoked cigarettes on the air, as well, as the film shows). The first question is a bit trickier; Good Night, and Good Luck is as real as any dramatic movie based on actual events. Some facts may be smudged, but Good Night certainly feels more real than most such movies, given the gritty, noir-documentary feel the black-and-white cinematography so successfully conjures.

But reality is more than just a series of events. It's context as much as conflict, and while Good Night provides plenty of the former, it holds back on the latter. Just as Clooney's previous directorial effort, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, took Chuck Barris' memoir -- which claimed he was an undercover CIA agent -- at face value, Good Night lays out its version of events, free of any questions or clarification. A very brief scroll in the opening minutes does little to convey the atmosphere McCarthy's crusade cast over the nation, or give a sense of the weight of ruined lives. We barely even get an adequate response when McCarthy slanders Murrow's background.

The same goes for our protagonists: We know precious little of Murrow's personality or background -- he's already an icon, famous for his radio broadcasts from London during World War II. Likewise, most of the reporters on Murrow's team barely register (is that Tate Donovan?). Grant Heslov, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clooney, appears as future 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt, although you'd only know that by reading the credits at the end. And the two people we do get to know -- reporter Joe Wershba (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his wife Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) -- exist largely to fill space with a tangential subplot about their secret, against-company-policy marriage. Aside from Murrow and producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney), only news anchor Don Hollenbeck (an affecting Ray Wise) makes a lasting impression.

Having said that, Good Night, and Good Luck is often riveting, and ultimately effective, more in spite of its "Just the facts" presentation than because of it. If our heroes are largely ciphers, in due course we begin to see the severity, the magnitude, of what they're fighting against. McCarthy is only seen via archival footage, which is much more chilling than any actor recreating McCarthy could have ever been, and these brief glimpses of history make it easy to see just why Murrow's crusade made CBS head honcho Bill Paley (Frank Langella) so nervous.

It's easy to quibble with Clooney's directorial choices -- the pacing seems arbitrary at best, and according to Film Threat, at least, Murrow more closely resembled the affable Clooney than the granite Strathairn, who was presumably chosen for his air of hard-nosed solemnity. (And interludes featuring Diane Reeves as a kind of jazz-singing Greek chorus prove slightly jarring, though not critically so.) But no matter. Good Night, and Good Luck ultimately does what Clooney wants -- it reminds us of the heights to which journalism can aspire. Whether there are men (or women) somewhere out there today who are up to the task is the unasked question that nonetheless dangles over our heads long after its final credits have rolled.

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