The clash between mainstream media and government has been a cornerstone of American society since its conception. The media’s role as a watchdog has helped to shape society and brought common sense when policy has gone dangerously awry. “Good Night, and Good Luck” is the story of such an event. McCarthyism, the ‘Red Scare’ of the early 1950’s, pit legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow against the rabid anti-communist senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. Murrow spoke to America at the dawn of the television age. He was a trusted voice of reason that reached out to a massive fifty million viewers. The scope of his audience was huge and Murrow felt it was his duty to provide them with the truth. He saw McCarthy’s tactics as a dangerous threat to American constitutional ideals. Good Night, Good Luck is a behind-the-scenes look at the CBS studios newsroom during this confrontation. It is a snapshot of a lost era and the pioneer who commanded it.
David Strathairn, in an exceptional performance, plays Murrow. He portrays him as straight-forward and acerbic, but also witty and caring. George Clooney costars as Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly. He pulls triple duty as the film’s director and co-writer. Both men lead an impressive ensemble cast that includes Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, and Frank Langella, to name a few. They play the unsung, supporting players who helped Murrow face McCarthy down. The film is shot in black and white and takes place almost entirely in the newsroom. We see Murrow and his crew at work. They argue, debate ideas, and put together the show in a smoky haze. The film is period specific, everyone has a cigarette and whiskey is the drink of choice.
The absolute genius casting move was to have Joseph McCarthy play himself. The senator has a lot of screen time, but it’s the actual footage of him during the hearings, speeches, and his infamous response to Murrow. Clooney makes a wise decision here. He uses him exactly as Murrow did. He showed America the man and they saw him for what he was, a tyrannical fear-monger. McCarthy’s machinations and use of misinformation was the key to his campaign. An actor portraying him might have come across as overdone or exaggerated. But McCarthy lives up to his billing and delivers a performance only he could.
George Clooney steps into a new realm with this film. Good Night, and Good Luck is the best work we’ve seen from him. It is an excellent film, brilliant across the board. Clooney maximizes the small things and it turns out big on screen. He understands nuance and gives his actors room to breathe life into their characters. This is especially evident in Strathairn. The look in his eyes, the hesitation, the way he flicks his cigarette, Clooney focuses on these small movements and it adds tremendous depth.
The cinematography and editing is absolutely superb. Clooney wants to show us a very specific period in time. The use of black and white, combined with a clear film stock, allows us a peek into the beginning of the television age. The show’s production is not high-tech by today’s standard, but it was cutting edge at the time and very involved. It has an extremely authentic look and feel. The placing of the McCarthy footage is well-timed and expertly done. I especially liked the way Clooney cuts back to Strathairn’s face as the footage rolls. It shows the palpable tension between Murrow and McCarthy. There was an antagonism between these men and it’s quite evident.
George Clooney’s politics will no doubt be raised by many viewers of this film. Clooney is an unabashed liberal, but Good Night, and Good Luck is not. It is a very methodical and studied piece. Murrow's impact on American history is well documented. Clooney does not dishonor him by painting him as a liberal crusader. He looks at Murrow at a defining point and portrays him as the responsible newsman he was. Good Night, and Good Luck is a major artistic achievement by Clooney and easily one of the best films of 2005.
Good Night, And Good Luck. is out September 16, 2005.