' ' Cinema Romantico: Good Night, and Good Luck

Monday, October 24, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck

A film presenting the story of legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow attack on Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt seems perfectly suited for an epic. Instead director George Clooney takes us in an opposite direction. He tells a tightly contained narrative focused almost entirely on the inner-workings of the CBS news division in their crusade against the notorious Wisconsin Senator.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” covers much of the same ground as Michael Mann’s “The Insider”. While it does focus on Murrow and McCarthy it also speaks of journalistic integrity and loyalty. The movie jumps right into Murrow and CBS producer Fred Friendly (Clooney, again) using their prime-time news program to ally with a private in the army being accused of communism. This segment then leads to them denouncing McCarthy and then McCarthy’s fiction-laded rebuttal of Murrow.

Clooney’s directorial debut “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was loaded with gimmicks, but here he is far more restrained with his story-telling – in fact, one may argue he is almost too restrained. The film at times almost plays more like a documentary than a work of fiction. He also chooses to film in black and white which makes me wish more modern-day directors would do so.

Clooney pulls off the hat-trick by co-writing with Grant Heslov. The duo sketches their characters with the slightest of strokes. For instance, there probably was very little on the page to the characters of Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson – a married couple hiding that fact from the newsroom. But both are good enough actors to provide depth swiftly and subtly. Even David Straitharn as Murrow himself seems to have an underwritten role. But he gives it context through the smallest of details – a close-up of his foot tapping, his steely gaze turning vulnerable at key moments, his dry jokes masking as obvious concern. Clooney obviously has clout in Hollywood and may have known he could obtain enough capable actors to write the script this way. Senator Joe McCarthy is portrayed quite adeptly by himself – through the use of archival footage.

Interestingly the movie doesn’t end with the fall of McCarthy, instead showing us the fallout within CBS after running with the story. There are lay-offs. Murrow and Friendly’s program slot is changed and number of episodes reduced. And rather than feeling simply like an epilogue, this seems to be part of the movie’s message. This may have been a landmark of journalism but that does not stop the real world from rearing its ugly head.

The spare story-telling is to me the film’s weak point. Admittedly this is just a personal preference. I favor movies rich in character to movies that rely solely on plot. Whereas in the early-mentioned “The Insider” we get a fully fleshed-out character in Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand, and to a lesser degree with Al Pacino’s producer, here we get nothing like that. Despite the flourishes provided by the actors they all remain at arm’s length. Edward R. Murrow remains an enigma throughout even though he’s at the front and center of the picture. We never get insight into what drives him. In fact, the film is "book-ended" by two scenes showing Murrow speaking at a banquet honoring him and these seem determined to push him to the point of sainthood.

A couple scenes with CBS President Paley (Frank Langella) provide the even-handedness essential to the film. He questions Murrow's own ethics while simultaneously giving Murrow and Friendly free reign to do the story they want.

In the last few years I've become a fan of George Clooney. I thought his performance in "Intolerable Cruelty" was brilliant and will go to my grave defending his crime-caper "Out of Sight" as a masterpiece. And here he shows that he is well on his way to becoming an excellent, and versatile, director. I can't wait to see his next one.

"Good Night, and Good Luck" is a historical film with liberal-leaning politics, a heavy-hitting cast and a famous actor for director. In other words, and whether I agree or not, this is the Oscar front-runner.

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