365 Days, 100 Films #28 – Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Good Night, and Good Luck, 2005.

Directed by George Clooney.
Starring David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels, Tate Donovan and Alex Borstein.


SYNOPSIS:

How one television show was arguably responsible for the fall of Joe McCarthy.


There were no tapes back then, in the 1950s, so television had to be transmitted live. The set needed to be silent, out of fear for interfering with the sound. Those behind camera would have to tiptoe around and speak in hushed whispers; all coughs and sneezes suppressed until the red recording light burnt out. This was particularly important during the sober broadcasts of See It Now, a current affairs programme hosted by Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) on CBS. But at the height of Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunts, the studio’s silence seems more like fear instead of practicality. You can feel the trials in the air, which is heavy and taut with tension.

Good Night and Good Luck is about Murrow and his team’s public criticism of McCarthy’s persecutions. As he sees peer after peer accused of harbouring Communist sympathies, and on increasingly dithering evidence, Murrow takes the responsibility for the silent. First he reports on a soldier quietly court-marshalled because of suspected anti-American activity. His generals were tight-lipped on their reasons. Murrow had seen the look in their eyes before – it’s because they didn’t know. All they had was a sealed, classified envelope.

Before this, McCarthy’s witch-hunts had suffered little public criticism. Murrow’s was the first voice against him, saying what many Americans were too afraid to. Doing so set See It Now right in McCarthy’s firing line, but Murrow expected nothing less. On his next show, he directly addresses the Senator:

No one familiar with the history of his country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating. But the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the Junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been confusing the public mind as between the internal and the external threats of communism. We must not confuse dissent from disloyalty. We must remember always, that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another; we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, we will remember we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Sen. McCarthy’s methods to keep silent or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of the republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom wherever it still exists in the world. But we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his, he didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right, the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Good night, and good luck.

Strathairn delivers this looking directly down the lens. It’s confrontational and rousing, and you temporarily forget it is a film you’re watching, like Murrow is addressing the contemporary. There’s timelessness in both his message and demeanour. This is a man of reason and morals. You’d boldly follow him into the gates of Hell.

Because the film is set almost entirely within the interiors of CBS, the smoky rooms of researchers and broadcast technicians can get claustrophobic. The smell of stale coffee almost wafts through the screen. It sometimes feels like the only link they and we have to their outside world is the daily newspapers they read and the occasional piece of stock news footage used in the reports. It’s an apt impression – cornered by the people who run your country. The studio becomes an Alamo, while Murrow is an immovable object, the embodiment of dignity sitting in his armchair.

After that initial report, McCarthy accepts a chance for rebuttal three weeks later. During that time, Murrow and his colleagues are attacked on every slight discrepancy in their pasts. It’s attempted character assassination, but the team is strong. Finally, Murrow gets his rebuttal from the Senator. Apparently the film’s first test audiences complained the actor playing McCarthy was too over the top. They didn’t realise it was footage of the man himself.

George Clooney, both a supporting actor and director, shot the film in black and white. Practically, it makes a lot of sense. The film’s stock news footage of the era, and concluding interview with Joe McCarthy, are all stuck in black and white. This way, the film’s characters and action blend and diffuse seamlessly with their real, historical subjects.

Good Night and Good Luck is a slow and wordy film. This would be fine if it was engrossing throughout, but unfortunately it often falters. To pick one out, the Robert Downey Jr. romantic sub-plot (if you can call it that) quickly becomes tedious. There’s an annoying jazz interlude too, but you could make a case that it at least provides consistency.

Overall, it’s worth it, but it could have been considerably better. It needs to be streamlined, but it’s already trim at 93 minutes. Perhaps it would have been better suited as a television drama. The more self-indulgent egos do prefer the larger screens, though.

Oli Davis

365 Days, 100 Films

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