A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 349 – Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good Luck – February 12th, 2011

This is a movie I have actually avoided for some time. I admit it. And it’s not because I thought I would dislike it. After all, it has a cast full of people I like. Full of people I love, actually. I mean, look who’s playing the lead role! David Strathairn! I adore him. He is amazing and I have loved him every time I’ve seen him. And I knew he was excellent in this. I knew it was a good movie. And I knew it would crush me and leave me shaking. And I was right.

I spent a good portion of this movie with my gut in a knot. I felt like I was on the verge of tears through most of it. Like any moment there would be something that would break me. It’s a type of tension I’m not used to but knew to expect given the subject matter. Expecting it did not make it better. The thing is, it’s a movie about a tense time, in a tense situation. And while at no time did I feel like everyone in the movie was in the sort of imminent danger that most thrillers put their characters in – no mad man was after anyone with a butcher knife or anything like that – there was a palpable feeling of fear and worry that, when prolonged, can be devastating. And I felt it. The McCarthy era terrifies me and this movie is smack in the thick of it.

The movie opens with David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow giving a speech about television and the potential it has as a tool for education and information. It then proceeds to go back a bit to follow Murrow and his coworkers at CBS as they decide amongst themselves that they cannot simply sit back and let McCarthy do what he was doing. That their consciences will not allow their silence. That as figures of the media, as people who bring information to the public, they cannot not report on what McCarthy was up to. That the secrecy of it all is directly opposed to what they stand for. And so they undertake the task of bringing to light not necessarily the secrets, but that the secrets existed. That there was information being held back and elided. That something was wrong. And they knew it would put their jobs at risk and potentially cause them to be labeled as Communist sympathizers, putting them under a microscope. And they did it anyhow. Edward Murrow did it anyhow.

Through the course of the movie we follow Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, and his crew as they begin their work on McCarthy and hit various points. The actual shows and facts of the era aren’t the point here. It’s the production of the shows. It’s the work that went into researching them and making them and the stress it put everyone under. It’s the atmosphere of television news production – live news, that is – with the hustle and bustle and sense of urgency. Murrow and Friendly and the rest of the team don’t just sit around even when they are sitting around. They talk events and news and reaction. And the reactions are always present. It’s not just the things going on that they need to know about. It’s how the way they report those things are then themselves reported.

In its way, this is a quiet movie. And that underscores the tense atmosphere. There are raised voices when something is going on and they’re all trying to work out just what it will mean, but for the most part this movie happens in low, serious tones. The smiles are made with closed eyes and ducked heads. The laughter is soft and reluctant. There are people whose lives are in the balance here. And while for the most part that means their livelihoods – their jobs and social standing and the like – it also means lives. One figure in the movie commits suicide near the end after being repeatedly labeled a Communist and harassed by the accusations. And I am not ashamed to say that I felt that moment like a punch to the gut. A slow motion punch to the gut, at that. Because the camera takes its time showing him turn on the gas stove and open the oven and sit down to wait. Because you know. And the movie knows. And it wants the audience to see the stakes here are not the matter of a job or a few friends. They are life and death. And that right there is when the knot in my stomach tightened too much and I started to cry.

I will admit that this topic hits me very close. I chose the profession I chose because I firmly believe that all people have a right to access information. I am in a public library because public libraries grant access to everyone. Or they should. One of the ideals imparted to me in grad school was to treat all patrons equally. I do not talk about politics at work. My patrons do not know whether I agree or disagree with their views. What they know is that they can come to me and ask for me to help them access information and I will do it. Because information is important. It is vital. And these days it’s not just television. It’s not just newspapers. It’s periodicals and books and radio and, of course, the internet. And I do what I do because it means I’m helping to make sure that no matter what social strata my patrons live in, they all have access to information1. The passion of people who want the public to know what is going on around them? I understand that. And it’s clear from the tone and atmosphere of the movie that George Clooney, who co-wrote, directed and starred in it as Fred Friendly, understands it too.

This is a beautifully made movie. The black and white cinematography is stark, throwing everything it shows into a very specific quality of light. The constant curls of smoke and the clear lines of light and shadow are all very deliberate. They set the stage and the whole cast steps up to it. David Strathairn delivers an absolutely amazing performance as Murrow. Every speech he gave made me choke up. Clooney as Friendly is steadfast and driven. In smaller but no less important and significant roles are Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as the secretly married Joe and Shirley Wershba, Frank Langella as station manager Bill Paley and Ray Wise as the maligned and tragic Don Hollenbeck. Every performance contributes to the nervous and determined mood of the film. It is striking and more than a little grim and the ending isn’t a storybook happily ever after. It is an ending that invites us to look at what our media is now and how it behaves and what we expect of it and what it expects of us. And as the credits rolled I cried again. Because this movie did what I knew it would. It made me both hopeful and depressed at the same time, which is, I believe, a perfectly reasonable reaction.

1 This topic started quite a debate in the class I took on Intellectual Freedom, because while it is a stance that espouses neutrality, neutrality itself can be seen as a radical stance. A curious and unfortunate catch-22.

February 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Good Night and Good Luck

February 12, 2011

Goodnight and Good Luck

We needed something weighty and intelligent after the last couple days of brainless fluff. So we turn to this gritty black & white drama about a news man daring to do a piece about the sinister finger pointing of the McCarthy era of American politics. Actually upon refection and after watching this for a second time I realize that McCarthyism is the background for the movie but it’s not really what the movie is about. It is a movie about the power of journalism, television in particular, and the integrity of a group of men who believed that they had a responsibility to act according to their consciences and convictions.

The movie is bookended by an actual speech Edward R Murrow delivered at a broadcaster’s convention about television as a force. He says that there is a danger that this powerful tool could become nothing more than a source of entertainment and of placation for the masses. He knows that it has the potential to be so much more. The rest of the movie explores his commitment to that ideal – as he dares to use television to make a difference.

There’s a quick opening crawl that sets the tone for the time period and tries to explain who Joseph McCarthy was and what his influence was. I found this bit of text a little obtrusive and condescending. I’m guessing that Clooney was forced to add it late in the production because test audiences were unfamiliar with the history of the McCarthy era witch-hunts. I think that the movie does a pretty good job of showing us people living in fear of becoming the subject of inquiries without legal proceedings or evidence, so it seems to me that this bit of exposition is unnecessary, but that is a minor quibble. This is a bold movie, directed with flare by George Clooney who goes to great pains to make everything feel authentic. The black & white look, extensive use of archival footage and vintage advertisements, and the smoke filled rooms thrust us right into the time period he’s depicting. There is also an almost documentary feel at times as the chaos of a live television news broadcast is shown to us. The scenes of the control room at CBS hearken back for me to the way Ron Howard depicted NASA mission control in Apollo 13 – full of people with jobs to do who operate like a well oiled machine but appear to an outsider like they are in complete chaos.

This could have been a movie about Joe McCarthy. He makes a great bad guy. The movie does a good job of demonstrating the way that he used insinuation, implication and outright lies to silence his critics. It was marketed as a film about the David and Goliath story of Murrow daring to speak out against McCarthy’s tactics – placing himself, his staff and his network in danger of being slandered and investigated by McCarthy and his cronies. It’s fascinating to watch the archival footage of McCarthy that Clooney uses in the film – he’s such a clearly damaged and unstable person. We get to see him manic with rage at the notion of Communists infiltrating every corner of government (the central pillar of his political platform.) We get to see him humbled and broken at the end when he finds himself under investigation and censured by his peers. So there’s a great arc there for a thrilling political battle along the lines of Frost/Nixon (which we put in to watch as soon as this movie was over tonight.)

It could also have been a clumsy allegory for the modern politics of fear. Parallels can be drawn between the use of paranoia in the McCarthy era to take political power and the Bush era use of fear of terrorist attacks to cement GWB’s political power. I’m pretty sure, given Clooney’s political leanings, that such analogies were probably in his head as he made this film. But thankfully that is also not the thrust of the movie.

Instead we get a film that concentrates on the power of the media. There’s a side plot about a colleague of Murrow’s who feels himself hounded by the right wing press who have labeled him a communist sympathiser and pinko. And there’s Frank Langella as Murrow’s boss William Paley who pressures Murrow to avoid controversy for the sake of the network. Murrow frequently laments being beholden to a need to appease the advertisers who pay for his production. We also get to see him roped into fluff pieces – pre-recorded “interviews” with celebreties which he clearly abhors as an abomination. That, taken with the speech that bookends the movie, alters the tone. It makes the movie less about the struggle to confront a particular injustice (McCarthyism) and more about the bravery required to stick to an unpopular story which Murrow believes must be addressed.

The entire movie rests on the performance of the lead character. Oh, there are great supporting roles as well. George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Frank Langella and Jeff Daniels all do a great job and ground the film in its own reality. But it is David Strathairn that gets the most screen time and is the central figure. It’s a fantastic performance too. He presents Edward Murrow as a man of deep convictions and powerful beliefs. His intensity, his clipped diction, his precision all speak to the nature of his character. From Midsummer Night’s Dream to Sneakers I have never failed to love David in a role, and this movie is no exception.

Because this movie doesn’t sell itself as a simplistic political thriller and doesn’t try to make a political statement it rises to a higher level. It is a classy, well made, well acted gem that at its heart says that the people tasked with bringing us the news have a responsibility to stick to their guns and deliver tough messages. It makes me want to watch All the President’s Men, which I have never seen but I think would be a good companion piece. It also very much makes me want to watch The Manchurian Candidate – where the McCarthy analogue turns out to be a puppet of evil communists attempting to get a sympathetic figure into political power.

It’s also an even more timely movie now than when it was made. As we have seen in recent days there is considerable power in the new world of the internet and social media to shape the politics of the world. The advent of almost instant and universal communication is clearly going to alter the world – as long as the internet is not simply a tool for entertainment and placation. The difference here is that there is no central authority presenting us with a well researched story for our consideration. In the modern day we can pick and choose the news we observe and believe – which may be part of why discourse has become so fractured and partisan. I present this as simply an observation. I have no solution to this situation we find ourselves in as we move into the future.

Good night, and good luck.

February 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment