Film Review ***: Clooney’s Homage to Good Journalism
Pseudo-Documentary Examines Edward R. Murrow’s Stand Against Joseph McCarthy
By Kapil Amarnath
Good Night, and Good Luck
Directed by George Clooney
Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Starring George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels
1950s America was defined by the middle class values of “Leave it to Beaver,” “Lassie,” and the comedy-without-cares “I Love Lucy.” But under that thin veneer, the Cold War raged. The seeds of the civil rights movement were planted with 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, and James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison’s literary and intellectual contributions. The average American felt the need to conform, scared of what might result if he didn’t. From this insecurity emerged Senator Joseph McCarthy.
McCarthy’s fire and brimstone style and us-versus-the-Communists mentality took advantage of American uncertainty, allowing him to garner political power. One reporter, Edward R. Murrow of CBS, decided to uncover the senator’s lies and smear tactics. Murrow took an inestimable risk in rising up from the fear that crippled America in the public eye of the time. “Good Night, and Good Luck” presents Murrow as an example of journalistic responsibility from a distinct and separate past to highlight the lack of quality in current news broadcasts.
The film is about Murrow’s (David Strathairn) attempt to take down Senator McCarthy on his show “See It Now,” in the spring of 1953. Murrow’s best friend and ally is legendary producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney), while another friend, local New York broadcaster Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise) has been blacklisted and become suicidal. Joe (Robert Downey Jr.) and Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) Hershba are producers who aren’t allowed to wear their wedding rings to work. Murrow’s no-backbone higher-ups include Sid Mickelson (Jeff Daniels) and President Bill Paley (Frank Langella).
Director George Clooney directs this with a style reminiscent of friend and executive producer Steven Soderbergh, giving us a few awesome tracking shots in the studio. In the few environments the film inhabits, Clooney consistently portrays Murrow’s isolation. In a defining shot, Murrow types the end of a closing monologue against McCarthy in silence, and the camera moves back, showing no one remaining in the room but a sleeping Friendly. Clooney also maintains an awareness of 50s culture and the separation between the past and present by filming in black-and-white and scoring with jazz music. Academy Award winning editor Stephen Mirrione (“Traffic”) and cinematographer Robert Elswit complement Clooney behind the camera.
There’s a ton of talent in front of the camera. Oscar nominees Downey Jr. and Clarkson are good in small roles, as is Clooney. But the film is built on Straithairn’s performance. He represents the qualities a journalist must hold sacred — honesty, a belief in what is right, and strength in shouldering the burden of being virtuous. Constantly with a cigarette in hand, he expresses doubt and fatigue, yet keeps firm in his beliefs, rarely cracking a smile. It’s a solid performance that could garner Straithairn an Oscar nomination in his first major leading role.
The screenplay, written by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is the only area where the film is weak. The script captures many of the period details, including a casualty of the Red Scare, the prevalent sexism, and post-war affluence. But the film doesn’t build tension well and trails off soon after the battle with McCarthy. The setup and ensuing let-down could have been intensified by stressing the country’s fear of McCarthy. Instead, the senator is presented only in old footage. The scribes don’t take advantage of audience expectation, and the movie isn’t as enjoyable as it could have been.
In this decade, the problem doesn’t lie with the people as much as with the fear-mongering they’re fed from news networks. The gaudiness and questionable quality of current national news networks contrasts with the work done by Murrow presented in this film. At 93 minutes, “Good Night and Good Luck” represents a quick break from the onslaught of violent images and biased reporting, providing a model for the highest level in TV broadcasting.