Good Night, And Good Luck
Easily the best movie of 2005. Producer/Director/co-star George Clooney, in detailing Edward R. Murrow’s battle with Joseph McCarthy at the height of his power, takes so many chances for what could have been a very standard biopic/history lesson. Shooting TV broadcasts almost entirely in close-up, letting the power of the words take over allows the audience to forget that this is a recreation. What this does is bring us into the moment from a different angle than the TV audience at the time would have, it is far more personal. We can see how Murrow was reacting at the time, how he felt about the situation that he was both creating and experiencing. Clooney should be grateful that he was able to get Paul Thomas Anderson’s DP, Robert Elswit, willing to try anything, such as several shots where a rack focus becomes something where both objects are out of focus, and for more than just a beat. These stylistic techniques could have been a distraction, much like having McCarthy play himself in a significant amount of newsreel footage, but in both cases, they work for the film, because they get at the pressure everyone at CBS was under to back down. The smoke-filled rooms, amidst the constant ads for cigarettes, with tobacco choked down to cover the tension in the air, creates the feeling that any moment their concentration could lose just as much focus as the camera. And here is McCarthy, always a looming presence in the room (and America), an ethereal figure controlling every situation by his very absence, even in their heads. By not casting an actor, and by showing Murrow (masterfully played by David Strathairn) reacting to filmed participants on a regular basis throughout the film, they all become ghostly apparitions, but McCarthy especially, because you can’t fight something that isn’t there. Whether Clooney took a page from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, by showing the power of a pre-recorded figure can only be guessed, but he certainly understands why this strategy can be effective.
It’s not just the directorial choices that work, even the obvious points which were almost a requirement, are nailed by the script. A discussion of journalistic ethics was a must, but Clooney and writer Grant Heslov (yes, that sidekick from True Lies, the one who wasn’t Tom Arnold) even sneak in points about the dangers of when journalists allow themselves to be used as pawns against each other by the public figures they should be exposing instead. Even Murrow’s heavyhanded bookended speech about how TV, if used correctly, can be an informational and educational tool, instead of simple entertainment to pass the time, is a clever swipe at how TV, especially the news, and those networks that purport to provide the world with their daily factual nutrition, have long since left the level of free-thinking motivation.
Somehow, beyond the central messages, Clooney allows the peripheral characters to take shape, despite the brief 90 minute running time. Ray Wise gives the most stirring performance as newsman Don Hollenbeck, constantly in fear of losing his job because of his communist affiliation. Wise has normally used his eyes to reflect intensity, menace, or downright looniness, such as his work with David Lynch and Victor Salva. But now he has been given a shot at projecting sadness and despair, using his Shar-Pei wrinkled forehead and grizzled rickety voice to show us how beaten down he has become over the years. If there is one flaw, it is a seemingly meaningless subplot concerning Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, who try to hide their marriage from CBS so they can continue to work together (at the time, it was against policy to have employees be married to each other). However, even then, there is a wonderful scene where they contemplate their loyalty to the company and to each other, whether or not they made the right decision by sticking with Murrow, and if it will cost them their professional lives.
It also gets to one of the most important things the film brings up, which is that Murrow and all of the CBS figures we see seem to be aware that McCarthy was wrong, and persecuting people based on hearsay and rumor without worrying about whether or not they were actually communists, and lumping in anyone who dare speak out against him in with “the threat” as well. There is a line where Murrow says that McCarthy wasn’t even selecting people who were communists, that he was incorrect “99% of the time.” What this suggests is that the American public had been caged by so much fear, that they were too scared to call McCarthy and Cohn, even if they knew they were right. While these issues were elucidated perfectly well by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the time, it does suggest that while we go through similar things today (though not quite as extreme), the assumption that what we see on TV, especially in terms of politicians and their views, may not represent even 50% of the public. It may only represent those politicians. It gives one pause to think that news has devolved to the point where it reflects even less reality than a sitcom.