Review: “Good Night, and Good Luck”

There is a meaningful connection between Hollywood and the United States’ domestic policies in the 1950s. This was the time of the “Red Scare” led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy from Wisconsin. Not only did he see communist infiltration in institutions – like for instance the U.S. army or Voice of America (the federal government’s external broadcast) – and liberal politicians (former President Harry Truman for one), he also felt “red” sympathies in Tinseltown. As a result of this, the “Hollywood Blacklist” came into being; a list created to put alleged communists out of work. Actors, directors, authors, even musicians and TV entertainers – among them well-known people like Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Richard Attenborough and Burgess Meredith – were prohibited from making movies. So it’s not surprising that, since then, many movies were released about this dark chapter of Hollywood history. But there were also people who spoke out against McCarthy and his methods during his “reign”. One of those rebels, if you will, was Edward R. Murrow, the anchorman of the popular CBS show See It Now. George Clooney took it upon himself to commemorate Murrow and his team of journalists in his fantastic, incredibly realistic and still relevant drama Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), which gained six Academy Award nominations. But it’s not just a look back into a lost era, a movie saluting moral courage; it poignantly comments on political grievances and also revives Murrow’s idea that television can be more than a mere means of entertainment.

1953: Joseph McCarthy’s commie-hunt is getting out of hand. Now even the slightest liberal-sounding utterance suffices to strip people from their social identity and to debase them in one-sided mock trials. The media are heavily affected too; critical thinking results in the loss of sponsors, which are vital to the still relatively young television industry. Hence, CBS executive William Paley (Frank Langella) is not too pleased with his See It Now team, led by anchorman Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) scrutinising McCarthy’s policies. But Paley, being a fairly liberal-minded man, eventually gives in because he takes pride in never having suppressed a story. So Murrow, Friendly and their See It Now team go on with their campaign, thus starting a small but important war between CBS, representing the whole of TV, and Senator McCarthy.

“Unamerican”? “Liberals hate America”? “Unions are evil”? Does that sound familiar? Labels and opinions like these, or at least ones to that effect, seem to be enjoying a revival in American politics; comparing social security to a Ponzi scheme (all “credit” to Texas Governor Rick Perry) and calling a Democratic president “socialist” (the same happened to Franklin D. Roosevelt – arguably one of the, if not the, greatest president in history) aren’t new phenomena. Good Night, and Good Luck makes this absolutely clear; many of the paranoid and sometimes downright ludicrous comments made by the movie’s main antagonist are uncannily similar to the ones that the more radical American conservatives make today. However, George Clooney’s film isn’t clumsy leftist propaganda but a painstakingly researched and, according to contemporary witnesses, thoroughly accurate account of events. To stress their point, Clooney and co-author Grant Heslov also didn’t cast anyone for the role of Senator McCarthy; he only appears in archive footage, thus practically making the case against himself – a style Edward R. Murrow and his team themselves used and brought to perfection.

But Good Night, and Good Luck doesn’t just take McCarthy and the 1950s’ communist paranoia to task. The film’s main storyline is framed by Edward Murrow’s infamous speech at a 1958 Radio Television News Directors Association event, in which he harshly criticised his colleagues for making TV a superficial medium whose only purpose is to entertain. The criticism may now be 53 years old but it still rings true:

“Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

We’ve established that Good Night, and Good Luck is a multilayered, eminently political movie. Now this might dissuade some people from seeing it – not just conservatives – but hopefully, it won’t, for the film’s cinematic merit, even without its powerful thematic dimensions, cannot be overvalued. It consists largely of dialogues, fast ones, that are immensely enthralling; everything has an incredible weight to it, which makes it a thrill to watch. The staging is flawless as well; Clooney’s direction creates a buzzing atmosphere of a network office without undermining the quiet, introverted tone of the film. Accordingly, the film’s main subject matter doesn’t outshine the personal stories that are addressed; such as the illegal office relationship between Joe (the fantastic Robert Downey Jr.) and Shirley Wershba (Patricia Clarkson), or the personal trauma of “pinko” news-anchor Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise). Visually, Good Night, and Good Luck excels as well; the art direction and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography are a marvel to behold. And finally, there is the brilliant cast, led by the stunning David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow (a role which gained him his first and so far only Oscar nomination). His acting is subtle, down-to-earth and downplayed – all traits that also applied to Murrow himself. Hearing Strathairn deliver those famous monologues can send chills down your spine.

Few movies of the last decade have had such a political and sociocultural weight to them as Good Night, and Good Luck; and if they did, like perhaps Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, they didn’t reach the cinematic value of George Clooney’s masterpiece. This is a vastly important movie, comparable to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men; one you should not miss on any account.

★★★★★★ (out of six)

———

If you’ve read all the way down here, let me thank you. At this point, I should probably tell you a few things about my reviews. I’ve given Good Night, and Good Luck the maximum rating. This, however, will not happen too often. When I rate a movie six out of six stars, I would not hesitate to call it a masterpiece – a title only very few movies deserve, in my opinion. To clarify possible misunderstandings, here’s how my rating works (there are ½-steps):

★★★★★★ Masterpiece |  ★★★★★☆ Excellent | ★★★★☆☆ Good | ★★★☆☆☆ Mediocre | ★★☆☆☆☆ Terrible | ★☆☆☆☆☆ Horrendous | zero stars (well… pretty bad)

If you want to check out my regular, personal (German) blog, you can find it here. I will try to find a balance between posting there and here. It also features a list of new releases I’ve seen in one year.

My favourite movies include, but are not limited to: The Apartment, The Big Lebowski, The Shawshank Redemption, Once Upon a Time in the West, Little Miss Sunshine, In Bruges, The Great Dictator, Annie Hall, WALL•E, Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Groundhog Day, A Clockwork Orange, V for Vendetta, The Odd Couple, Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky), M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder

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