Good Night and Good Luck
A Film by George Clooney
written by Clooney and Grant Heslov
The new film from George Clooney - in his role as actor/co-writer/director - is a challenging, daring effort that is thoughtfully-conceived and beautifully-made. Working with co-screenwriter Grant Heslov, Clooney has crafted a tightly-written script, to which the precisely-paced and focused direction and excellent performances bring an intensity that makes what might have been a dry historical drama come vividly alive.
This is an "independent" film of that new breed of studio-independent hybrid that relies on independent financing to get made, but partners with the established studio distribution system - in this case Warner Brothers' "Warner Independents" designation - to get into theaters. It's an easy decision for the distributor - they take little risk yet stand to make a lot of money if the film succeeds - and a necessity for independent producers, too many of whom have seen first-class films languish on the shelf or in limited release on the festival circuit.
Yet for a power-player like Clooney, it's a perfect solution. It allows him to make a "labor of love" film with independent financing (much of it no doubt raised on the value of his name) and yet tap into a major-league, professional distribution network. The film may be a pet project, but there can't be any doubt that Clooney intends it to be widely seen.
I met another regional film reviewer outside the screening, and when I began to praise the film he stopped me with the question, "Don't you think audiences will be bored by it?" Of course, he is right - the 18-32 year-old-male demographic that forms the core of the "blockbuster" audience won't be able to sit through an hour and a half where no one takes off their clothes and nothing bursts into a spectacular ball of flame.
Thanks to an educational system that has institutionalized a kind of selective amnesia, most of that demographic can't even name two or three of the "rights" articulated in the Bill of Rights, much less relate to the Red Scare and subsequent blacklists of the 1950s represented by Tailgunner Joe. But for those who remember those days or who take an interest in our nation's history, the film will be a thought-provoking, powerful reflection of events of the past that speaks clearly to our situation in the present.
The focus of the story told in the film is purposefully limited. During the emergence of television as a medium in the early 1950s, the struggle between information and "entertainment" was already joined. The commercial pressures of needing to find a mass audience were weighing heavily against the journalistic independence of network news departments. There was the beginning of significant coercion to make news "entertaining" and to produce shows that pleased sponsors. It is on this struggle, as it coalesced around Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his reporting on Senator McCarthy, that the film focuses.
Murrow is the man in the middle- on the one hand, an experienced journalist with a strong sense of integrity and responsibility, and on the other the first "talking head," a "television personality" whose name and reputation were used as much to sell cigarettes as to explore serious political topics; whose hard-hitting repertorial work was "paid for" by the indignities of the fawning, fluffy, celebrity-centered "Person To Person" interview shows he was required to host.
Although the outcome of the struggle in the film is never in doubt (except to those ignorant of history), Clooney and Heslov manage to create suspense in details, through carefully observing the strain the situation creates on all involved and suggesting the wider ramifications of the decisions they make. The personal price paid by Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney) and those around them - as well as their personal sense of accomplishment - is the emotional hub around which the story revolves.
The episode brought to life in the film is book-ended by a speech Murrow delivered at a dinner in his honor in 1958, in which he reflects on those times and their wider implications. As a newsman who prided himself on getting the whole story and getting it right, and as one who understood the essential role the press plays in fostering public debate and educating the "informed electorate" so necessary to make democratic government possible, Murrow agonized about the direction he saw television journalism taking. The possible paths he describes show a prophetic insight, and the perils he envisions should certainly be provocative to us in evaluating our current circumstances.
Clooney - an outspoken champion of free speech and democracy - intends this story to be an object lesson, both on the manipulative uses of fear as a weapon of propaganda, and on the necessity of standing up for one's convictions in spite of the possible consequences. But he takes great pains to personalize the story and explore the emotional dimensions rather than just presenting the "facts."
In spite of the fact that the film could serve as both a history lesson (I hope Civics and Social Studies teachers will assign their classes to see it) and as a moral fable, it is never simply "preachy." Clooney and his fellow film-makers present a predicament, and explore the actions and consequences that arise from it. He clearly hopes the audience will examine parallels in our current situation and draw our own conclusions.
Besides its intelligent handling of the material, the other remarkable thing about this film is its overall co-ordination - what the French call "mise-en-scene." Balancing the way that the filmed images, the dialogue, the actors' work, the pacing, the music, the design, the costumes, the lighting, and all the other elements that have to come together to create a "scene," is the crux of the director's job. Those who are best at the job can create a film that is compelling on every level - visually, emotionally, intellectually, musically, philosophically. Clooney's work here qualifies him for membership in this exclusive club.
He has assembled a talented cast and guided them to do their best work. David Strathairn plays Murrow in a way that is not so much "impression" or "imitation" as embodiment. Within Murrow's closely-guarded, controlled personality, he manages to suggest the depths of feeling and conflict with which the man is dealing. His approach is minimalist; a small movement of the eyebrow or lip here, a shifting of the eyes there, which perfectly capture carefully-restrained - but unavoidable - unconscious reactions that are so familiar to those of us who remember Murrow.
Strathairn's portrayal (and the Clooney/Heslov script) neither idealizes nor sentimentalizes Murrow. This is,not a biography of an individual as much as an examination of "the times that try men's souls." Yet while maintaining that perspective and not attempting to give us a specific psychological portrait of Murrow, Strathairn manages to personalize the conflict in which Murrow finds himself to the point that it has emotional as well as philosophical resonance.
When we pose hypothetical questions to ourselves along the lines of "what would I do in that situation," it is often difficult to get a sense of the emotional, psychological and even spiritual repercussions of making such difficult decisions. It is this vivid three-dimensionality that Strathairn and this film provide.
Clooney disappears into the role of Murrow confidant and partner, the producer Fred Friendly. He and Strathairn work very well together, conveying the pressure for conformity and company loyalty as well as the sense of "team spirit" among the news division staff that both engendered and challenged that loyalty. There is nothing flashy about Clooney's performance, and that is very much to his credit, given that he is the "name" actor in the ensemble. What he does with his character is completely in service to the other characters and to the story being told.
This is very much an ensemble effort - with the Murrow character being a "first among equals" or a "spokesperson" for the consciousness of the team of which he was a part. Thus in the film, the work of the other actors helps set a context and add depth to Strathairn's leading role. Robert Downey Jr. - for once cast as a reasonably normal person - gives a spot-on turn as a colleague whose marriage to a fellow-reporter (Patricia Clarkson, who also turns in a fine, detailed cameo) presents another facet of the conformist, convention-dominated world that McCarthy manipulated so cunningly.
Ray Wise adds an edgy, painful portrayal of CBS newsman (and Murrow protege) Don Hollenbeck, whose difficult personal life reacts with the climate of red-baiting to produce a tragic outcome. Frank Langella mixes dignity and cynical commercialism as CBS Chairman William Paley, both Murrow's protector and nemesis. Jeff Daniels is appropriately slick and self-absorbed as Sig Mickelson - CBS's own "Organization Man."
The film is shot in black-and white - a daring strategy in a time when Hollywood regards that choice as extremely problematic. But it is so well done, with a silky texture to the lighting in some places and stark, high-contrast edginess in others, that it seems perfectly right given the period the film covers. It has the added value of making the archival black and white footage of McCarthy fit more seamlessly than it could have in a color film.
Using authentic footage of McCarthy rather than having an actor portray him is another bold move - but one which works very well. Rather than embellish the drama, Clooney emphasizes it by sticking strictly to the historical record, using understatement and the drama of the actual character, as he presented himself, to draw the audience in and ground the story in reality.
The camera-work employs the full range of movement and effects, from hand-held sequences that communicate the immediacy and hectic movement of the newsroom, to set-pieces like the slow pull-out zoom that illustrates Murrow's solitary struggle, or slow travelling-shot that follows Hollenbeck's desperate decision, and many other choices of framing and perspective that harmonize effectively with the emotional tone and import of each scene.
The music - provided by contemporary jazz vocalist Diana Reeves and a wonderful small combo - underscores the period while at the same time offering a completely different perspective - that of "art" and "emotion" rather than "fact" - on the events. Reeves' (and her musicians') performances of jazz standards from half-a-century ago respect the idiom of the time, but also seem arrestingly original and new - particularly in the context in which each is presented.
This is a film that has been carefully designed from start to finish, with an integration of narrative and technical elements that makes it a pleasure to watch, listen to and think about. Clooney uses the skills of the cast and crew he has assembled to full effect and in doing so shows himself to be an emerging master of the director's craft. It is one of the best films I've seen this year and will definitely be in contention for a number of Academy Awards. Most of all, it is deeply-satisfying, meaningful and important piece of film-making.
That's my take on it. What's yours?