Review: Good Night, and Good Luck

I was alive in the 1950s, but just barely. I was born in 1957, but by that time, the wreckage done to our civil liberties by the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and the first half of the 1950s had been mostly cleared away. America was still a pretty up tight and paranoid place, but the era of blacklisting was at least over. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the famous junior senator from Wisconsin who saw communists everywhere pervading our government, was the key figure of his age whipping up anti-communist hysteria. He died at age 48 in the same year I was born. Few mourned his passing.

As is well known, the CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow was instrumental in Senator McCarthy’s fall from power. The 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck chronicles the intersection of these two powerful men in the 1950s. Senator McCarthy is played by himself; he appears only in historical footage. Rather than try to recreate the already well-documented hearings of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, the film tightly focuses on CBS News, Edward R. Murrow and the staff of his influential TV show See It Now.

The film was written and directed by the actor George Clooney. Clooney also played the part of Fred Fielding, the CBS producer of See It Now. Its release in 2005 struck me as hardly coincidental. Indeed, near the end of the film, we see archival footage of President Eisenhower eloquently speaking about how American is differentiated by our respect for the inalienable right to Habeas Corpus. This just so happens to be a right that was recently denied to many so called enemy combatants from our War on Terrorism not to mention a handful of American citizens. Nor is Edward R. Murrow portrayed as an evenhanded journalist. He recognized McCarthy for what he was: a power monger and a threat to our constitutional government and civil liberties. In the movie Murrow, with the sometimes with the halfhearted support of CBS News management, makes no secret of his desire to bring down the imperial Senator McCarthy.

Shot (or at least rendered) in black and white this film is really a short (93 minute) behind the scenes look at Murrow, CBS and the See It Now staff during these decisive times. The film feels quite authentic. The 1950s were a much different place than our current decade. The film shows it as a time when the cigarette was king. It seemed like everyone smoked, and almost everyone in this movie is smoking all the time. Murrow himself was a chain smoker. His addiction killed him in 1965. The film often seems shot behind a gauzy curtain of tobacco smoke.

Actor David Strathairn, who won a nomination for best actor for this movie, powerfully renders Murrow. There is no doubt that Murrow was courageous journalist. Although his reputation was impeccable, taking on Senator McCarthy was still a nervy and very dangerous thing for him to do. We are also given some insight into CBS senior management, including Chairman William Paley (Frank Langella) as well as others on the See it Now staff. This includes two on the staff who were married, but had to hide their relationship in order to keep their jobs. It also portrays others on the staff who were worried they would be blacklisted for activities years ago that were now considered un-American.

The movie is so tightly focused that it lacks the broader context. If you know anything about those times, you know what eventually transpired. Consequently, there is little in the way of suspense. Indeed, hardly halfway through the movie Murrow is successfully delivering his first body blows against Senator McCarthy. The movie adds little illumination to the events of the 1950s. Instead, it serves primarily to illuminate modern audiences into the journalist Edward R. Murrow. It also portrays something we do not see much of these days from our media: genuine journalistic courage and a willingness of senior news management to risk reputation and profits in pursuit of the public’s agenda. Of course, it was easier to do it in those days, when the networks ruled the airwaves.

While I enjoyed the film, I felt that it won so many plaudits largely because of the times that we live in. Would this movie made in 2000 have garnered as many award nominations or as much interest by the media? I think not. Arguably, we needed a courageous media in 2005 more than in 2000. Perhaps one point of the movie was to encourage our modern media to develop some spine.

Overall Good Night, and Good Luck feels more like a political statement than anything else. It feels like an attempt by George Clooney to establish his liberal credentials and to win kudos from the Hollywood elite. I can think of much better political movies that were far better than Good Night, and Good Luck. (All the President’s Men comes to mind.)

Good Night, and Good Luck is neither a bad movie nor a mediocre movie. It is just a pretty good movie. It is worthy of a rental for the fine but focused rendering of CBS News in the 1950s, as well as Strathairn’s faithful portray of Edward R. Murrow. It is a succinct history lesson for those less than age fifty, as well as a convincing portrayal of the broadcast world of that era. While an important work, it is not a seminal work. Children of Men, which I recently reviewed, is a seminal work of art.

Good Night, and Good Luck gets 3.2 on my 4.0 scale.

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