Good Night, and Good Luck (2005, George Clooney)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This is my brief writeup of Good Night, and Good Luck from the only previous time I saw it, soon after its DVD release:

Good Night, and Good Luck, the stark and well-told tale of Edward Murrow’s televised confrontations with Joseph McCarthy, is not as good as George Clooney’s masterful first film as director, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but it is just as risky and entertaining. Its one major flaw is that it seems to exist in a bubble, where no one outside the world of television is engrossed in the happenings of the McCarthy period. Outside of a few select moments, most of them coming via stock footage, we see little of the effect of the communism witch hunt on the outside world.

But the wonderful music gives the movie the breath of life, the performances are beautifully understated, and the whole thing comes together thanks to the visual brilliance of the production, photographed in glorious black and white. It is via Clooney’s uncompromising insistence on not condescending to the audience or accepting any commercial motivation that the film’s ideology (and idyllic vision of people living their lives as they wish, and must) becomes its powerful, haunting story without the overreaching tackiness found in so many politically-charged movies.

First of all: big lapse into Peter Travers-style critspeak there, but my horizons were pretty small back then. Fascinated by McCarthy, the blacklist and the “Red Scare” since I was a teen — and immensely fond of black & white movies as an aesthetic unto themselves, not to mention intricately detailed fact-based stories about this period specifically (see Quiz Show) — I was almost automatically predisposed to like this film. Frankly I still am: it corresponds to many of my personal interests and superficial fetishes, enough that on revisiting it now I did greatly enjoy myself, especially viewing it on our projector and thus allowing it to become especially immersive. Cinematically and dramatically, however, the film has many issues that are difficult to ignore. As with Steven Spielberg’s The Post, these aren’t enough to distract me from having an unabashed good time with it, but they do stick out, and they’re instructive in terms of how the film itself and American political culture have aged as well as how I have aged, which may not be interesting for you to hear about but may provide some helpful context for other things you read here.

It seems worthwhile to give a more cogent and detailed explanation of what the film is and the context into which it was born. In 1953, American journalist Edward R. Murrow, known and beloved for his radio dispatches from London during World War II, was cohost and cocreator of a CBS newsmagazine called See It Now, which among other things became famous for a series of incendiary exposés of the Second Red Scare of the 1950s and an extended confrontation with loathsome crackpot Joseph McCarthy that preceded his downfall in the Army-McCarthy hearings. The environment of early television news, with a generally accurate depiction of the production team behind See It Now, provides the backdrop and a sort of wispy context for the meat of the production, which reenacts Murrow’s famous monologues that anchored his big reports about McCarthyism, dramatizing the behind-the-scenes nervousness over a sponsored TV show directly confronting any aspect of U.S. politics that extends to CBS chief William Paley (Frank Langella). Murrow is portrayed with outstanding subtlety and sensitivity by David Strathairn; Clooney delivers nothing of the man’s life outside of his work (this is not a biopic) but nonetheless Strathairn finds considerable depth in the limited scope provided. There’s one particular moment, at the close of his last depicted broadcast about McCarthy, when the cameras turn off and he switches out of his network-TV dignity and is overtaken by a certain stoic uncertainty, beautifully played: modesty and integrity side by side, the way you like to imagine your idols.

McCarthy himself appears at length in archive footage, including in his famously incoherent direct rebuttal to Murrow and his doddering confrontation of Pentagon staffer Annie Lee Moss. Other tangentially related CBS dramas of the time play out succinctly: the secret marriage of Joseph and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr., fun to remember as a fine and not at all smug actor before the superhero industrial complex swallowed him whole, and Patricia Clarkson at her best respectively), the suicide of Don Hollenbeck (a tragically miscast Ray Wise, who is just too schlocky for the role) and Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney)’s repeated head-to-head fights with the network itself over the fate of journalistic integrity within a haven of commercialism such as TV, culminating in Murrow struggling through interviews with the likes of Liberace, quizzing him about potential wives.

For all its merit as history and art, Good Night, and Good Luck — named for Murrow’s traditional signoff — is a fairly archetypal example of the Hollywood liberal cinema of the 2000s, specifically the era of Air America, Michael Moore and the Kerry campaign and the ineffectual attempts of all of the above at protesting one of the most egregious shames in the nation’s history, the Iraq War. Directed generally competently by Clooney, whose previous film was certainly imaginative but I don’t know about “masterful” (I haven’t seen it in many years now and most of my memories of it have to do with Sam Rockwell), it utilizes as a framing device a bruising speech of Murrow’s from 1958 about the doom forecast by network television’s social emptiness and trend toward irresponsibility. This speech bears some resemblance to Holly Hunter’s unsuccessful lecture about superficial newscasts toward the beginning of Broadcast News not to mention the entire satiric message of Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, both of which were certainly influenced by Murrow’s philosophy and skepticism about the form that made him an infallible cultural figure.

But somehow, Clooney’s use of Murrow’s actual words feels less like a commentary about the world and more a tirade directed at the audience itself, either as validation or as admonishment. Murrow’s words had undeniable relevance to the world in 2005 — no doubt the rise of Fox was on everyone’s minds at the time — and even today, when he accuses TV of being wires in a box divorced from its social purpose he could just as easily be talking about the internet. But Clooney does little with these thoughts and information besides simply present them straightforwardly, and while this isn’t an embarrassing choice by any means, as a result the film provides little that a documentary or book about the events in question couldn’t — and moreover, for all his lack of intrusion he clearly wants us to feel a wink and a nudge with every word out of Murrow’s mouth. Lumet and James L. Brooks were talking about the times in which their films were made, and the results have continued relevance because of their honesty. Clooney is using 1953 to talk about 2004, and the results feel tied to the latter time much more than the former, but what he has to say about 2004 isn’t terribly interesting or insightful. Again it is the same way in which Spielberg uses the Pentagon Papers to address the Trump era, none too intelligently. To specifically address the crimes of our century in mainstream American cinema is viewed as gauche, which is our loss.

As I hinted at in my original writeup, the story might well seem more perceptive if it was as much about the social impact of McCarthy’s power-tripping insanity as it is about the tireless heroism of journalism and “resistance” itself. On the exceptional podcast Michael & Us, Will Sloan and Luke Savage have pointed out a tendency toward “politics — what a concept!” as a thesis statement of so many intensely charged social-issue films of this period; there is the uncomfortable suggestion that Clooney is less interested in what McCarthy’s accusations and the surrounding red-baiting meant than he is in the fact that Murrow et al. were the heroes who Fought Back; the repeated moments when characters scattered around the studio applaud Murrow’s speeches feel terribly indulgent and self-satisfied. The poster tagline “We will not walk in fear of one another” feels as weak and ineffectual coming from this source as “Democracy dies in darkness.” Because McCarthy wasn’t defeated, nor was TV commercialism; these ideas would only continue to undermine American life — and Clooney knows this, but he cannot fully resist the idea of a heroic crescendo.

Clooney’s instincts don’t fail him entirely; one of his biggest dramatic coups is the presentation of several extended portions of real film of McCarthy himself at the most dastardly moments of his career. There is a long excerpt of the ceaselessly astonishing Annie Lee Moss interrogation, which McCarthy can’t even be bothered to linger around for, and a couple of the most earth-shaking extracts of the Army-McCarthy hearings themselves. The problem is that when Clooney repeatedly interrupts this with (however enjoyable) song performances by jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves — a bit of atmospheric padding that is evidently justified strictly by CBS subsidiary Columbia Records occupying the same 52nd Street building — and long sequences of journalists and producers carousing around restaurants smoking and reading the newspaper reviews of their broadcasts (one clear sign of the intellectual divide between print and TV journalism), you can’t escape the sensation of retreating into — as I put it in 2006 — a bubble, one that’s all too stylistically seductive for the bracing import of this subject matter. It’s as though the story is being treated as a two-hander between McCarthy and CBS, with only the most rudimentary evidence of any effect on a broader universe.

And frankly, it hurts a bit that every intriguing element of this narrative is better served now by several other means. The relevant broadcasts of See It Now are easily accessible on Youtube, as are multiple documentaries about Murrow and McCarthy’s lives. Emile de Antonio’s magnificent verité documentary Point of Order! is a brilliantly edited compilation of Congressional footage that does more to indict McCarthy and McCarthyism than any Hollywood picture ever could. But what of the immediate pleasures of Robert Elswit’s cinematography, Straithairn and Clarkson’s performances, the generalized feeling of immediacy you get from a focused, serious dissection like this? Well, those things are irreplaceable, although what once seemed otherworldy in its stark essence seems less so once you’ve seen a earlier film like Bob Fosse’s Lenny that goes much farther with its expressionistic view of seismic events through photographic ingenuity, with the lighting up of life as cinema as a smart undercutting of received-wisdom mythos. Clooney can’t match that, not with his color film stock in a fit of masquerade, and not with his often perfunctory and predictable rhythms and blocking.

All that said, the film retains a lot of dramatic heft, even if outside events are largely responsible for its feeling of urgency, and even if other media, words as well as film, does much of the film’s work for it. At the same time, the film breezes quite beautifully by in its 93 minutes, free of excess, and as with All the President’s Men, what seems rushed and fragmented on a first viewing eventually comes to seem appropriately unsentimental and minimalist. But it’s more a kind of blissful escapism for a certain breed of righteously outraged nerd who lives for this shit — myself included, and again, I had a great fucking time watching this again — than a really illuminating piece of modern history.

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