Good Night, and Good LuckMcCarthy, Minus the Red Menace
Technically proficient in depicting an intersection in the careers of Senator Joseph McCarthy, (R, WI), and CBS News anchor Edward R. Murrow, the black and white Good Night, and Good Luck is George Clooney’s stylish take on a certain episode from the 1950s. It puts some pizzazz in its message that journalists were once admirable.
But its message is muddled. Because it is silent on the threat of communism, which was real, the movie is missing the pretext to McCarthy’s hearings, which robs the conflict completely of its framework. Between jazzy radio tunes sung by Dianne Reeves, characters come and go in the smoky CBS newsroom, puffing away on cigarettes and droning in that bored, media monotone, scrambling to get a grip on the Wisconsin senator’s hearings about the communist Soviet Union’s influence in the U.S. government.
Co-writer and director Clooney, also playing a pragmatic CBS News suit, nails the era, down to the male chauvinism and the sorry spectacle—which has not changed—of cloistered media intellectuals trying to impress their peers as much if not more than report what happens. But his understandable aversion to biopic formula comes at the expense of any historical context; his movie lacks scope and purpose.
To make a movie about the McCarthy hearings, which were driven by a legitimate fear of communist takeover, and fail to account for the bloodiest regime in history—proven to have infiltrated the highest levels of American government—is too glaring an omission to be coincidental. Clooney simply pretends the Red Menace did not exist.
But it did, which destroys his truth to power theme, with Murrow (David Strathairn) taking on the wild-eyed senator, making McCarthy look like an idiot on national television, which wasn’t hard to do. Not unlike today’s television programming—particularly broadcast news—Good Night, and Good Luck downsizes important ideas and events, including Murrow’s comment that his was a battle between “the individual and the state.”
If only it were true, this might have been better. Among the newshounds are a colleague with a checkered past whose fate is utterly predictable and a couple (Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) who are married in violation of the company’s rules, which has nothing to do with anything in particular. Clooney’s perfectly costumed players’ dilemmas and tragedies hardly represent an assault on the freedom of the press, let alone serve as a warning to today’s more vicious attack by the Bush administration—or its inevitable result, dictatorship.
Of course, the worst example of that system of government—Soviet Russia—is the elephant in the newsroom Clooney declines to acknowledge.
Using footage of blustery McCarthy, Clooney poses Murrow as a hero—a debatable assertion—with McCarthy as the villain. To be truthful would be to show that this on-air match occurred in an age when the communist state had already starved millions of people to death—many were driven to cannibalism—and was plotting war on America. Clooney’s movie doesn’t just dodge the question, it misses the point.
Frank Langella as the head of CBS gives the most compelling performance, while Strathairn impersonates Murrow, portraying him as a lifeless intellectual, practically a martyr. Yet the story moves along with the crispness of a good television production, with an air of authenticity in cigarette-smoking network news upstarts working on deadline.
Good scenes include isolated moments with Murrow—looking up at the camera to wax poetic, sitting alone at his desk as the camera pulls back—but these, too, fade into white noise. (Murrow eventually went to work for the Kennedy administration, which greatly expanded government control of the airwaves.)
Though McCarthy was right that communists had penetrated Hollywood and Washington, his hearings were a distraction from—rather than a distortion of—the truth about the enemy. McCarthy was not the primary threat to a free republic, and Edward R. Murrow was not the savior, making Good Night, and Good Luck an incomplete, if stylish, example of historical speechifying—not the taut drama it aims to be.
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Viewers will get the most mileage out of the audio commentary by Clooney and his co-writer, Grant Heslov, whose thoughts on the movie and the events depicted are often thought-provoking, though, again, when the 1950s are described as an era when people were terrified of nuclear bombs, the question of who was most likely to use them—the nation of the Enlightenment or the Soviet slave state—is left unanswered.
A 15-minute companion feature complements Good Night, and Good Luck as a tribute to what the principals regard as the halcyon days of journalism, though, curiously, speakers, like co-writer Heslov, are not identified by titles. It is a period, it is interesting to note, as Clooney does, when the government forced networks to provide news in order to broadcast its regular programs on the “public airwaves,” a notion that is thoroughly endorsed here with no trace of irony. Also no mention of those groundbreaking investigative reports from behind the Iron Curtain—because there weren’t any, which puts taking down a blowhard politician in a free country in perspective.
Originally published by Box Office Mojo