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Good Night and Good Luck (2005)

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At the conclusion of World War II, allied leaders from the United States, Great Briton, and the Soviet Union made an agreement on how Europe would be divided up following the collapse of the axis powers. As the Soviet Union violated its agreements in refusing to withdraw from territories such as Poland, concern began to mount that the Soviet Union had ambitions to expand its influence and that it would be willing to do so by placing operatives in various positions throughout the government of the United States. This led to the Second Red Scare and an aggressive effort led by Senator Joseph McCarthy to expose Communists and their sympathizers. Good Night and Good Luck is a period film that tells the story of famed broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow and his exposé of McCarthy's witch hunt.

This is a film of both substance and style. I'll talk about the latter first. A period film works best when the story unfolds on the screen in such a way that the audience feels drawn into not just the story, but the environment, everything that makes the period what it is. An excellent design decision was made to present the film in black and white. Since this was largely a story that unfolded on the small and colorless television sets of 1950s America, what people know of the story probably is in the form of television footage. Much of the story is presented inside of the offices and studios of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), which included not only television and radio holdings, but also recording studios, affording some wonderful mid-century Jazz to be presented by letting us peer into a recording session. The lack of color, the music, styles of dress, mannerisms, and the ever-present smoke all work together to ensure that we're drawn into the period.

Casting was also quite good, with a fantastic performance from David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow. When Strathairn delivered newscasts, we were able to see on-screen what we remember of Murrow, everything from his tone of voice to the way he held his head. When the lights dimmed and the newscast ended, we were able to see the quiet and principled determination of the man who dared to subject a powerful Senator on a mission to the scrutiny of those for whom he claimed to represent. Robert Downey Jr played Joe Wershba, Patricia Clarkson played Shirley Wershba. Murrow's friend and colleague Fred Friendly was played by George Clooney (who also directed the film, and co-wrote it with Grant Heslov). These performances were all thoroughly believable, not just as plausible characters, but as real people living and working fifty years ago.

The most interesting casting choice was for the role of Joseph McCarthy. Rather than finding an actor to make a portrayal, the only visual that we had was through television, which would show actual historical footage of the Senator. One of the most powerful moments in the film is actual footage (shown live on ABC in 1954) where Joseph Welch, the U.S. Army's attorney general, rebukes McCarthy during a hearing in his famous questions, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

That the media loves this film comes as no surprise. Virtually everyone I know in broadcasting regards Murrow as a hero. Thus, I cannot help but reflect upon certain rich ironies, both in the career progression of Murrow himself and some recent actions of the media.

The makings of the first critical irony can be seen in the film. It begins at a 1958 speech he made to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) wherein he told them that “we are fat, comfortable, and complacent” and that television was “being used to detract, delude, amuse and insulate us.” That speech allows for a flashback to the events that lead up to the fateful decision to produce the “Report on Joseph R. McCarthy” and to cover its aftermath.

By 1958, Murrow's lectures that he delivered about the demise of the industry's morals had become tiresome to those involved in the business of television and his priorities differed from those trying to win viewers. As the business of television and television news matured, no place could be found for the man that led the maturation of the profession of broadcast journalism.

The second irony is in what CBS decided to air not long before the presidential election of 2004. Dan Rather (who talks of Murrow and his influence at CBS in his autobiography, The Camera Never Blinks) and his producer Mary Mapes ran a piece highly critical of President Bush and his military service. Believing the story to be true and wanting desperately to unseat the man that many on America's Left love to hate led to the airing of a story that was ultimately without foundation, based on unsubstantiated reports and false documents. Thus, under the guidance of Rather and his team that idolized Murrow, CBS had gone from helping to put an end to witch-hunts based on questionable or inconclusive evidence to doing the very same thing themselves, only to be exposed by amateurs who bothered to check facts.

Good Night and Good Luck is an excellent film, demonstrating Clooney's prowess as not only an actor but as a director. Not only is the experience itself a pleasure, but it leaves viewers with plenty to consider and to discuss. I could hardly ask for more.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-11-07 09:39 AM

yep, very good

Posted by donetrawk at 2006-07-18 08:00 AM
I saw this film a few weeks ago. Solid. Although I enjoyed Stathaim much more as Eddie Cicotte in Eight Men Out, I found he played Murrow well. The atmosphere of lies and scare tactics employed by the politician involved certainly reminded me of more current events.
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