In 1953, television journalism was in its infancy. It was a time when the specter of right wing Red witch-hunts, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, threatened to ruin the country. Men like Edward R. Murrow stood up against this injustice and demanded that secrecy and intimidation by the American government be stopped, using their new medium as their tool in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
George Clooney has run the gamut during his career from TV heartthrob on “ER” to film superstar to writer, director, producer and innovator. He made his directorial debut with his interesting but flawed 2002 film, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” Clooney has learned a thing or two since then with his depiction of a slice of the life of journalism icon, Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn).
“Good Night, and Good Luck” is not a biopic about Murrow but a treatise in the integrity of the press – something sorely lacking now in the media – and its duty to stand up to government repression of our inalienable constitutional rights. The film starts off with a 1958 testimonial for Edward Murrow by his peers. When he addresses the assembly he makes clear his view on journalistic honesty and the responsibility of the press to uphold the rights of Americans against repression. The film then flashes back to 1953, the time of Murrow’s greatest challenge – the Communist witch hunts led by the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, that threaten to tear apart even the idea of American freedom.
Edward R. Murrow, “the face of television,” during TV’s fledgling years, hosted the news documentary program, “See It Now,” and the popular talk show, “Person to Person.” Murrow and his team of up-and-coming reporters hold their regular daily meeting to discuss the stories of the day and select the next topic for their news show.
One such item is about navy pilot Milo Radulovich, kicked out of the service because he was declared a “security risk” for not denouncing his father and sister as communist sympathizers. He was found guilty without the benefit of a trial and the charges against him were sealed and kept secret. The story is such a scathing indictment of how the powers-that-be can ruin a citizen’s life without due process of law. CBS second-in-command, Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels), warns against the story because it will upset the “See It Now” sponsors. Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney), feel so strongly about the Radulovich injustice that they decide pay the advertising costs of the show.
The controversial program brings accusations against Senator McCarthy, whose Un-American Activities committee may have brought unfounded charges against the navy pilot and many others in the country. Murrow and crew know they have struck a chord when the journalist is declared a communist sympathizer and his team is investigated. These scare tactics, instead of frightening the news hounds, set their resolve and they dig into McCarthy and his ruining, malicious ways. This had-nosed reporting forces the senator to, eventually, have to come to his own defense in the famous Army/McCarthy hearings.
George Clooney made the smart decision to shoot “Good Night, and Good Luck” in black and white. Lensing, by Robert Elswit, gives the film the appropriate retro feel that helps propel you back to the early days of TV journalism. It was a time when the term “integrity” was synonymous with news reporting and the reporter was a part of the last bastion that opposed the injustices perpetrated by men, like McCarthy, upon the average citizen. Of these few and fair, Edward R. Murrow stands tall and David Strathairn, an excellent but enormously underrated character actor, breathes life into the man. The actor does not give a caricature performance but one that captures the essence and the honor that anyone familiar with Murrow will readily see. I don’t do this often, but when I came out of the screening of the film, I thought, “Oscar.” Strathairn gives what is easily one of the most powerful performances of the year.
Clooney has assembled a solid cast of known and not-so-known actors to make up the CBS news team surrounding Murrow. Clooney, as Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly, gives a good performance and the brightness of his star power is cloaked by a strong character portrayal. Frank Langella, as CBS head honcho William Paley, gives a noteworthy perf as a man who must walk a fine line – support the integrity of his reporters while keeping the people that pay the bills, the sponsors, happy. It’s a tough role but Langella handles it elegantly.
The rest of the large, ensemble cast is generally well played with Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clark as Joe and Shirley Wershba, the secretly married couple (it was against the rules for coworkers to marry) in the CBS newsroom. Co-scribe (with Clooney) Grant Heslov plays Don Hewitt and Ray Wise garners enormous sympathy as reporter Don Hollenbeck, maligned and discredited by McCarthy’s gang to the point of suicide. Other members of the cast help flesh things out, giving “Good Night, and Good Luck” a realistic, believable feel.
Clooney and Heslov’s script brings the period to life as it makes a statement about journalism today by showing what true reporting integrity meant a half century ago. Where today’s journos jockey for the next big celebrity scandal, men like Murrow, back in the 50’s, were more concerned with telling the truth. Entertainment is more important today than honest reporting and Clooney and company puts us in an amazing time machine with “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
The filmmakers combine live action and archival footage of the day to weave this tale of the battle between a power hungry, power abusing bureaucrat and the members of the Fourth Estate, the journalists trying to uphold truth, justice and the American freedoms. Smartly, they make good use of the copious newsreel footage of Joe McCarthy and his undocumented charges against countless Americans. This footage is skillfully inter-cut with the live action, maintaining an even look between them.
Production design, by James D. Bissell, does a marvelous job capturing the look and feel of a 1950’s TV newsroom. The black and white photography immerses the viewer in the tense, exciting environment of a 1950’s television newsroom. The cigarette is a character unto itself with Murrow continuously taking drags and brandishing his signature butts from beginning to end. Nearly everyone is sucking on cigs and, though causing me to develop smoker’s cough, gives the film the verisimilitude of the day. The image of the hard drinking, hard smoking newsmen is rife throughout “Good Night, and Good Luck,” with Louise Frogley’s fine costuming of them equal to the rest of the production
“Good Night, and Good Luck” enters the rarified realm of such real life journalism films as “All the President’s Men” and “The Killing Fields.” It doesn’t have the intrigues built so well in those films and doesn’t need it. The battle of wills between the powerful and the just is enough to sustain the film and Clooney keeps it moving briskly from beginning to end. The film is economically told at just over 90 minutes, a true treasure in an important film. Keep this one in mind come year’s end. I give it an A-.
'Our history will be what we make it.' Edward R. Murrow
In 1953, Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee Senator Joe McCarthy had whipped his country into a state of fear with his communist witchhunts, but no one dared criticize the man's more than questionable tactics for fear of reprisal. No one, that is, but pioneering television journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn, "Dolores Claiborne," "Blue Car"), who together with his producing partner Fred Friendly (George Clooney, "Ocean's Twelve") and the support of CBS head Bill Paley (Frank Langella, 1979's "Dracula," "House of D") used his weekly news documentary show 'See It Now' to call attention to the breakdown of civil liberties and show the madness in McCarthy's methods using the man's own words in "Good Night, and Good Luck."
Cowriter(with producer/actor Grant Heslov)/director/star George Clooney ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") sticks to television as his subject for his sophomore outing, which is as stylish in black and white (cinematography by Robert Elswit, "Punch-Drunk Love") as "Confessions" was in color, but Clooney sets his stakes higher this time around, his film a stern warning of history repeating itself that couldn't be much clearer. The parallels between McCarthy and the post 9/11 Bush administration are obvious. Perhaps more urgent, however, is a sense of something almost like despair at the state of television journalism, which is elegantly and concisely pointed out in Murrow's 1958 speech given at a dinner in his honor which opens the film (see the full text at http://www.turnoffyourtv.com/commentary/hiddenagenda/murrow.html).
After Clooney's set the tone, he takes us to a staff meeting where Murrow notes a local newspaper item on Navy pilot Milo Radulovich, dismissed from the military without a trial as a security risk purportedly because his father read an Eastern European newspaper. Murrow is sure this will lead back to McCarthy and he and Friendly allay the skittishness of number two news executive Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels, "Because of Winn-Dixie") and his boss Paley by paying for the show's advertising revenue from their own pockets. Friendly even stands up to the implied threats of two colonels, Jenkins (Don Creech, "The Island") and Anderson (Glenn Morshower, "The Island"), the Navy sends in lieu of an opportunity to rebut or explain the producers' allegations.
Encouraged by the reaction from the Radulovich piece (he was even reinstated by the Navy), Murrow very astutely goes over archival McCarthy footage with his team in order to trip the man up with his own words. They not only succeed, but McCarthy's rebuttal, which, as expected, brands Murrow as a communist sympathizer, proves their point when he steers clear of actually addressing any of the issues which they're raised. Clooney follows the triumphant climax, where the 'See It Now' team receives the news of the Senate's investigation of McCarthy, with two sad and terrible ironies.
The director has gathered an exceptional ensemble of actors who radiant intelligence, but unlike "Confessions," where we never connected with the inner life of his lead, here the commitment and bravery of these fiery journos is palpable. Strathairn is just perfect, giving a contained performance that fairly vibrates with his need to elucidate politics for the American people. I believe I only caught one smile from Strathairn, and not during any of his dry, affectionate banter with Friendly. The ever present cigarette (the movie practically gives the effect of second-hand smoke) is a necessary extension of his form. If Strathairn isn't finally recognized by the Academy for this flawless performance, there is no vestige of taste in Hollywood (he has already won Best Actor at the 2005 Venice Film Festival). Clooney's also terrific, somehow downplaying his movie star looks in service to his behind-the-scenes role. Robert Downey Jr. ("Gothika," "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang") and Patricia Clarkson ("The Station Agent," "Miracle") have nice chemistry as Joe and Shirley Wershba, the producing couple who were only fooling themselves (except for a humorously oblivious Murrow) hiding their marriage (it was against CBS rules at the time) from their colleagues. Also notable is Langella, who has the gravitas of the legendary television exec. The film also stars Ray Wise ("Twin Peaks'" Leland Palmer) as doomed news anchor Don Hollenbeck, cowriter/producer Grant Heslov ("The Scorpion King") as '60 Minutes' creator and "See It Now" director Don Hewitt, and Robert John Burke ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Hide and Seek") and "Station Agent" director Tom McCarthy as field reporters Palmer Williams and Charlie Mack.
With only a couple of exceptions, Clooney only leaves the CBS news studios via the archival documentary footage he incorporates into his film. Senator McCarthy, Navy pilot Milo Radulovich, and cafeteria worker Annie Lee Moss (another McCarthy target) and Liberace all 'play' themselves. Yet the film is never flat. Production Designer Jim Bissel, who did such terrific work on "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," recreates the studios as a connected hive and Clooney and his cinematographer enlarge the space by using glass dividers and emphasizing monitors which sometimes reflect back their foreground subjects. Perhaps most inventively, a soundtrack well chose jazz standards ('I’ve Got My Eyes On You,' 'Too Close For Comfort,' 'Who’s Minding The Store?') are incorporated via tracking shots to a music show studio where Grammy winner Dianne Reeves performs in period character.
Perhaps commenting upon his own career, Clooney also makes a point of the compromises made by all performers, trading fluff in order to practice their art, within Murrow's story. In conjunction with "See It Now," Murrow also hosted the celebrity talk show "Person to Person," a job seen here as a chore endured. But Clooney makes a hilarious parallel to Murrow's technique with McCarthy by selecting a piece with Liberace where the celebrity does Murrow's work for him. When Murrow presses him on eventual marriage plans, Liberace feeds back all manner of justifications for his delay, then compares himself to Princess Margaret, who is 'looking for her dream man too.'
"Good Night, and Good Luck" (Murrow's signature sign-off phrase) is a much-needed reminder of what investigative news journalism, especially on television, could be in a society less in thrall to the almighty dollar, but will Clooney need to do "Ocean's Thirteen" before he can deliver his next kick in the pants?
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