Good Night, and Good Luck Review
McCarthyism may be the chief target of the political drama Good Night And Good Luck but there's something else in the film's sights: television. Specifically, the dumbing down of American network television in the fifties at the behest of corporate sponsors who disapproved of shows that were controversial or political or just asked viewers to think. That makes George Clooney's film a companion piece to Robert Redford's brilliant 1994 drama Quiz Show, which tackled the same subject in the same era. Not only can Good Night And Good Luck withstand the comparison, it can stand proudly alongside Redford's movie as one of the best political films of recent years.
America in the early 1950s: the Cold War is underway and fear of communism has led to a national witch-hunt spearheaded by Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, who is determined to root out communist sympathisers in the government, the military and the state department. The media is dismayed by McCarthy's tactics but also afraid of him and afraid of the House Un-American Activities Committee which is on a similar mission hunting for reds in the entertainment industry. Anyone who publicly criticises the fight against communism becomes a suspected communist.
Edward R Murrow (David Strathairn) is a veteran broadcast journalist who fronts a weekly news magazine on CBS called See It Now, which mixes celebrity fluff with more serious segments about current affairs. Murrow has personal as well as political reasons for detesting Senator McCarthy and so he persuades his producers and colleagues (played by George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr and Patricia Clarkson amongst others) to let him run a story about a US air force lieutenant who has been fired as a security risk. The reason? His father, an Eastern European immigrant, is suspected of communism. When the segment airs to a mostly positive reception, Murrow grows bolder and he decides to go after McCarthy personally.
Director and co-writer George Clooney has upset many in America by wearing his left-wing political views on his sleeve. It's important to separate the message from the messenger however. Good Night And Good Luck isn't a left-wing film, it's a film that supports democracy, civil liberties and a free press. This message is that political power is sometimes abused and that the media has a responsibility to expose this when it happens. Its villain, Joseph McCarthy was a right-winger but his methods of keeping America safe from communists were ironically not far removed from those used by Stalin and Khrushchev to keep the Soviet Union free of dissidents. President Eisenhower, no bleeding heart liberal himself, is quoted to support the film's point.
For a passionately political film, Good Night And Good Luck is scrupulously fair-minded. No one is demonised or caricatured. If Senator McCarthy comes across as both demonic and a caricature, that's entirely his own fault since the film uses archive footage of the man himself. In lengthy, apparently unedited clips, we see McCarthy grilling people in front of his committee, responding to Murrow's attacks and ultimately being dressed down by his own colleagues. He emerges as a pitiful figure, a sweaty ogre high on his own self-importance. His bullying of a low-level White House employee at a committee hearing is shocking to watch.
In recent weeks I've heard it argued that free speech should be denied to people with offensive and "dangerous" views, such as Holocaust-denier David Irving. In Good Night And Good Luck, by allowing Joseph McCarthy to put his case, George Clooney demonstrates beautifully why "dangerous" people like this should be handed all the rope they want and pointed to the nearest public crossbeam. This is the best cinematic defence of free speech since The People Vs Larry Flynt.
The film's other villain, the CBS network is also allowed a voice - executive William Paley played by Frank Langella. He's portrayed with some sympathy as a man torn between his better judgement and his responsibilities to his network and its sponsors. He makes a good point when Murrow accuses him of cowardice and he observes that Murrow himself stopped short of defending any actual communists. However, it's hard to disagree with a word of Murrow's speech that opens and closes the film.
Even if you do disagree, Good Night And Good Luck can still be enjoyed as a piece of intelligent, well-crafted entertainment. George Clooney's direction, which I found annoyingly self-conscious in his first film Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, is far more mature and restrained this time. You don't notice the direction, which is exactly the right approach. The stark, black and white photography by Robert Elswit evokes the era of monochrome television perfectly. All the performances are excellent. David Strathairn thoroughly deserves his Oscar nomination and I was also very impressed by Frank Langella and by Ray Wise, who plays a network anchorman drawn into the feud between Murrow and McCarthy. Clooney certainly knows how to get the best from actors.
Incidentally, this film isn't all George Clooney's work. A large share of the credit must go to Grant Heslov, who produced and co-wrote the script. Heslov is a character actor who's had supporting roles in a lot of Hollywood blockbusters. You might remember him as the analyst in True Lies who suggests that a terrorist is known as the Sand Spider "probably because it sounds scary".
Heslov and Clooney's script is Good Night And Good Luck's strongest asset. Using genuine transcripts as much as possible, it's sharp, concise, thoughtful and sometimes surprisingly funny - an interview Murrow conducts with Liberace (apparently a genuine one!) is pure comic gold. Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to the two filmmakers is that they accomplish exactly what they set out to do, which is to make the audience understand the principles Murrow fought for and think about them.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:12:49