Good Night, and Good Luck
Director : George Clooney
Screenplay : George Clooney & Grant Heslov
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : David Strathairn (Edward R. Murrow), Robert Downey Jr. (Joe Wershba), Patricia Clarkson (Shirley Wershba), Ray Wise (Don Hollenbeck), Frank Langella (William Paley), Jeff Daniels (Sig Mickelson), George Clooney (Fred Friendly), Tate Donovan (Jesse Zousmer)
George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck has the visual feel of a chamber drama, with the majority of its action taking place in a handful of offices in the CBS building in New York, but the emotional gravitas of a morality play. Set in the early 1950s amid Senator Joseph McCarthy’s relentless witch-hunt for subversives in the United States government, it plays as a history lesson with more than a few intimations of relevance regarding current events. It’s impossible not to hear a character in the film intone that we can’t promote freedom abroad by curtailing it at home without thinking of all forms of post-9/11 “us against them” and “either you’re with us or against us” rhetoric, which aims to reduce all shades of gray into clearly demarcated black and white. This is precisely the sin for which McCarthy is so adamantly loathed and the reason for his ultimate failure.
The hero of Good Night, and Good Luck is Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), the stern, chain-smoking CBS newsman who first made a name for himself reporting the blitz in London over the airwaves during World War II. Working together with his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney), Murrow decides to use the power of television, then a nascent mass medium whose precise place in the flow of American cultural life had yet to be cemented, and use it to take on McCarthy’s bullying tactics. Murrow dedicated an episode of his show See It Now to McCarthy, using film clips of “the junior senator from Wisconsin” in action to show viewers just how extreme he had become. McCarthy responded in typically vitriolic fashion three weeks later, but to no avail; his tactics, which were most famously derided on television by Army attorney general Joseph Welch when he asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?,” were seen for what they were.
As a drama, Good Night, and Good Luck never wants for tension and intrigue, even as Clooney’s approach to the material remains relentlessly austere, the very opposite of his flashy take on Gong Show host Chuck Barris’s corny “I was a CIA operative” fantasy in his directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002). Clooney and cowriter Grant Heslov burrow deep into the backrooms of the CBS news offices, turning workman journalists and secretaries into heroes via their conviction and refusal to bow to the pressures that had intimidated so many others. Murrow’s dealings with CBS president William Paley (Frank Langella) are rife with the tensions between the desire of men like Murrow to use television as a tool for the betterment of the country and the need for men like Paley to protect its commercial interests.
In a sense, Clooney’s film develops its own spectrum of morality in terms that are arguably a bit too black and white, with Murrow and his team depicted as clear moral giants, men who saw clearly what needed to be done and never blinked in the face of opposition. The closest the film comes to suggesting a moral gray zone is when Shirley Wershba (Patricia Clarkson), one of the CBS staffers, wonders aloud to her husband (Robert Downey Jr.), “What if we’re supporting the wrong side?” Otherwise, there is little doubt: Murrow did the right thing, and McCarthy, who is seen only in clips featuring the actual man, was a misguided bully who did far more harm than good. By showing us McCarthy exclusively through the eyes of his ideological opponents, Clooney paints him in one-dimensional terms.
Yet, it is hard to maintain Clooney’s approach to the material as a weakness of any sort when Good Night, and Good Luck works so well. Clooney is clearly trying to make a statement about the power of the mass media to do good in the world, something that is hammered home clearly by using scenes of Murrow addressing a conference of television directors in 1958 as his framing device. Murrow speaks with no qualms about the complacent nature of television and how it works to insulate its viewers from the realities of the world, rather than inform and enlighten them, something he saw as the medium’s greatest failure. Many have said and would say the exact same thing about the movies, thus Good Night, and Good Luck can be seen as Clooney’s stern rebuke to such a stance, his own version of Murrow’s tenacious desire to see the medium at his disposal work for a greater good.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2005 Warner Independent Pictures