George Clooney's second film as director recounts a story which could easily have been made into a prestigious, three hour-long Hollywood biopic, probably starring Russell Crowe or Kevin Costner. It's set in 1953, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was accusing everyone with a pulse of being a Communist, and CBS's Ed Murrow decided that it was high time his current affairs programme, See It Now, did some accusing of its own. Dedicating an episode of the show to McCarthy's slanders and inconsistencies, Murrow risked the wrath of the channel's sponsors, not to mention the wrath of McCarthy, who, in customary fashion, responded to the programme by branding the newscaster a Soviet stooge. It's a fine true story of integrity under fire, so it isn't hard to imagine Russell or Kevin as the giant-slaying reporter, thumping his boss's desk to some bombastic orchestral accompaniment, and sticking to his guns while his wife pleads with him to think of little Tommy (or whoever).
But Good Night, and Good Luck tells the story in a very different manner. Clooney who also co-writes, co-produces, and co-stars as Murrow's right-hand man seems to have taken the film's tone from his stone-faced central character, a man who keeps his emotions locked up, releasing them only via a slight twitching of his left leg. When Murrow delivers a eulogy for one of his colleagues, he concludes, "Not much of an obit, but it's brief, and we got our facts right." Clooney may well have had those words taped to his megaphone.
The film is shot in black and white, and located almost entirely in CBS's veneered offices, where Murrow (David Strathairn) plans his broadcasts with his Brylcreemed team Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Patricia Clarkson and Jeff Daniels among them. Never without a cigarette, even when he's on national television, he prepares his attack on McCarthy as calmly and quietly as if he were preparing a report on the stock market. These scenes do have their drama, of course. There's tension when Murrow is debating the broadcast with the network's gruff owner, Frank Langella; and there's more tension when the news team sips its Scotches and waits for the reaction of the press and the Senator. But there are no impassioned, award-baiting orations; just ironic office banter. There's no sign of Murrow's family. Nor is there any incidental music except, cleverly, when it's being played by a jazz combo in one of CBS's studios. The acting is consistently subdued, so it's to David Strathairn's immense credit that he's earnt an Oscar nomination even while playing a character so stiff, thin-faced and thin-lipped that he could be a Victorian undertaker.
Murrow is wryly tolerant of the compromises he has to make to work for a commercial network. News bulletins are sandwiched between adverts for aluminium roofing and cigarettes ("It makes good sense to smoke them"). And he's only permitted to challenge McCarthy on See It Now if he also agrees to interview Liberace on another of his programmes. The scene of the stern reporter asking Liberace about his marriage plans is typical of the film's wiles. Not only does it show us the kind of tranquillising tabloid TV that was needed to keep the sponsors docile, but, as Liberace states brightly that he won't get married until he meets the perfect girl, it's also another reminder of how unwise it could be in a supposedly free country to make your personal preferences public.
Refreshing as it is to see a principled, low-key film that assumes its viewers are grown-ups, Good Night is so narrow in its scope that it's more like a television play than a fully developed film. You might not want Clooney to go to the opposite extreme of the fullblown Russell or Kevin version, but it wouldn't have hurt him to include some context and characterisation. As it is, he zooms in on three or four episodes of See It Now, to the exclusion of the bigger picture of American lives at the time. McCarthy isn't even represented by an actor, but by TV footage from the period. And considering that this archive footage provides the film with its funniest and most frightening scenes, you wonder why Clooney didn't just make a documentary instead.
One answer and one of the project's weaknesses is that ultimately he doesn't seem very interested in Murrow vs McCarthy. He's using their battle as a stick to beat today's television a "box of lights and wires", in Murrow's words, that's used merely to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate us". What's even more apparent is that Clooney is preoccupied by chastising the Bush administration. Just as Arthur Miller employed the Salem witch hysteria to address McCarthyism, Clooney employs McCarthyism to address the War On Terror, and he does so so explicitly that Good Night can be seen as a companion piece to Fahrenheit 9/11. No prizes for guessing why he chose to include this particular one of Murrow's speeches in the film: "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior senator 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." Clooney may have been a disastrous Batman, but, even without a cape and mask, he's fighting for freedom and justice once again.
Jonathan Romney is awayReuse content