Good Night, and Good Luck Review

Journalists. Love them or hate them, they are the purveyors of history, and it would be wrong to overlook the few that have made a genuine difference. Think of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who lifted the lid on the Watergate scandal; it must have taken a great deal of guts to break that story, making them modern heroes in the media landscape. But would we still be aware of their discovery if it wasn’t for Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men? Probably not. Most people today get their history lessons from cinema, so it’s fitting that another crusading reporter enters the limelight in Good Night, and Good Luck. Before Bernstein and Woodward, there was Edward R. Murrow; largely responsible for launching the media attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 50’s. It’s a long, sorry tale in American history, and the film chronicles Murrow’s efforts with grace.

1953. Murrow (David Strathairn), a successful broadcaster for CBS, takes a moral stance concerning McCarthy’s “destructive” handling of the Communist witch hunts. Recognising the regimes problems, Murrow enlists the help of colleague Fred Friendly (George Clooney); deciding to tackle the government head-on with their frank and critical reports. Network head Bill Paley (Frank Langella) is reluctant at first, but agrees despite the political ramifications. Murrow manages to denounce McCarthy and his duplicitous administration, but not without “warnings” from high-ranking colonels, mud-slinging from the Senator’s lackeys, and stiff words from the CBS brass. Yet, he persists, causing a great deal of controversy in the process…

While Murrow’s story certainly deserves to be told, the element that makes Good Night, and Good Luck so compelling, is the fact that so-called “McCarthyism” is still being debated. Some groups are unwilling to believe that these witch hunts transpired, while others are quick to label McCarthy as a villain. Yet, the film is based on a great deal of factual evidence, recreating events unblinkingly, and employing some real footage to lend it an air of authenticity. The most memorable portions of the film are taken directly from this stock footage - especially those snippets with the Senator; showcasing his righteous attitude. In fact, so outrageous was McCarthy, that certain members of the audience complained that “the actor portraying him was too over-the-top”. Little did they know, that the material was real. That’s a good indication of how well Good Night handles the affair.

Throughout the picture, McCarthy is shown in a very poor light. The archival material depicts him as an opinionated coward, with an axe to grind. In one instance, we see him retreat from a televised interrogation, when the going gets tough. There’s evidence of him using scare tactics against his detractors (during his tyrannical speeches), and the film effectively documents the unfortunate case of one serviceman dubbed a “security risk”, without proof to support such claims. For the most part, McCarthy’s administration is represented, primarily, as incompetent, and often threatening. Such methods only helped to initiate a climate of fear in America.

To their credit, the filmmakers never glamorise the events. In fact, the film has a plodding pace, moving from each key event in a fairly rigid manner. It’s a straightforward narrative, which sparked some critics to call the film “slow” and “boring”. On the other hand, it gives the film a documentary-style tone, that educates the viewer. It also kept me entertained - the presentation is strikingly different from typical Hollywood fare; refusing to spice-up the history with typical thriller conventions. Not that Good Night should be classed as a thriller. I’d feel odd calling it such, despite the fear and paranoia that plagues the characters. For much of the run-time, the film came across as one of those dramatic recreations you’d see on The History Channel. Only a damn great dramatic recreation.

While the film recounts many of the key events (which I feel the viewer should discover for themselves), it’s Murrow’s editorial team that provides the audience with a portal into the story. There’s Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), who is branded as a traitor by the press for speaking his mind; an unfortunate and unjust stigma that leads to tragedy. He certainly provided some moral support to Murrow, yet it was Friendly that aided Murrow the most. Living up to his name, he stuck by him through thick and thin, putting his career on the line in the process. Yet, the most sympathetic characters are probably Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clakson), who have to keep their relationship a secret in order to carry on working for CBS. Like their colleagues, they share a fierce appreciation of Murrow, and their loyalty is put to the test…

The cast is excellent, yet no one chews the scenery. It’s rather odd that such an esteemed cast doesn’t swamp the picture, but each of them bring a great deal of restraint to their portrayals; they seem like real people, living real lives. Downey Jr. and Clarkson are effective, depicting their love for each other without resorting to cliché. In most respects, they give the picture some heart. Wise’s performance is also commendable, bringing a tortured resonance to Hollenback that embodies the team’s insecurities. Yet, the acting reigns clearly go to Strathairn, who makes an impression as Murrow. His delivery of the journalist’s famous reports bristles with energy, and his intense features stay in the mind. He offsets such scenes with moments of humour with Clooney, making him a likeable “hero”. He’s a complex man, and Stathairn succeeds in his portrayal, inspiring appreciation for his cause.

Of course, Good Night and Good Luck wouldn’t have received much attention, if it wasn’t for Clooney. It’s his second feature film as a director, following the criminally underrated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. As with that film, Good Night reveals Clooney’s eye for detail, and his ability to extract convincing performances from his cast. He appears to be a born director, and his staging of the scenes is excellent. For Confessions, he employed the talent of DP Newton Thomas Sigel, who gave the picture a playful visual style. This time, however, he sought Robert Elswit. He is, arguably, the real star of this film - his black and white photography is outstanding; giving the compositions a vividness that many films fail to capture. With help from production designer James Bissell, Good Night really captures the 50’s aesthetic, and is a pleasure to watch.

Ultimately, Good Night, and Good Luck isn’t a film for everyone. It’s a slow, stately document of the era, which focuses on detail rather than action. In other words, it’s a film with something to say, and the political themes continue to resonate today. The best films pose questions for the audience, and while Clooney doesn’t provide the answers, he gives us some potent food for thought. For those interested in the events, and those seeking something more cerebral from their entertainment, Good Night, and Good Luck comes highly recommended…

The Disc

It seems that Sony and TVA’s Canadian release of Good Night, and Good Luck differs slightly from the American disc. Not only is the box art inferior, but the disc is also missing the behind-the-scenes documentary. Without Warner’s edition, I’m not able to compare the transfers, although some consumers have voiced their annoyance…

That said, this isn’t a bad release.

The Look and Sound

Having marvelled over Elswit’s photography in the theatres, I’m happy to report that the DVD treatment is well above-average. The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is wonderfully detailed, presenting the black and white visuals with clarity. Troublesome aspects like grain and print defects are missing here - only the digitally restored archive footage stands-out, but that was to be expected. Blacks are solid, and contrasts don’t become a problem. If there is a problem, it’s during some of the lighter scenes, which aren’t as crisp. Backgrounds can appear soft too, although the lack of compression artefacts and edge enhancement makes such quibbles easy to overlook. Good Night, and Good Luck is a beautifully-shot film, and the transfer reflects that.

The audio (presented in DD 5.1) is unremarkable, but without any explosions, gunfights or operatic scoring, it’s hardly the type of film that requires an active mix. It’s clean and well-transferred, showcasing this dialogue-driven picture in the best way possible. Even when dialogue clashes, the track manages to make sense of it all - projected largely from the centre channels. Surrounds are used rarely, if ever, yet the few instances of music sound great. It’s a good track; not demo material, but exactly what the film required…

The Canadian distributors also provide 2.0 tracks in French and English. Rather frustratingly, there are NO subtitles - what’s up with that?

Bonus Material

Having lost the behind-the-scenes piece, all we get here is the audio commentary with George Clooney and Grant Heslov. It’s a meandering, jokey track, that doesn’t go into the detailed dissection of the films themes that one might expect. Clooney’s own political thoughts are largely missing, but his charming persona comes across well, and he clearly gets along with Heslov. The pair are at their best when discussing Murrow, and offer some decent tales about the reporter. They also highlight the archival footage, while Clooney praises the filmmaking. It’s a low-key affair, punctuated with spots of silence, making it worth a look for fans of the film only. Disappointing…

Concluding the disc, is the theatrical trailer, and a look at Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy.

The Bottom Line

With his second feature, Clooney proves himself to be a skilled filmmaker, having full command over the narrative and camera. The material at his disposal is also worthy - an era of American history that provided both a turning point for politics, and the media too. It’s an assured effort; made all the better by excellent and restrained performances. While the disc leaves a lot to be desired, Good Night, and Good Luck is a film you should see. As a history lesson, it’s one of the most entertaining I’ve witnessed…

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