A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , , ,

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