A Warning From History

George Clooney's second picture as a director, the succinct and unpretentious Good Night, and Good Luck, is a modest movie, in scale, cost and running-time, but a huge film in terms of its message and relevance to today’s news media. It tells the story of a key chapter in American political life, the Communist witch hunt conducted by the paranoid, power-hungry Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and the efforts of television journalist Edward R. Murrow, played by David Strathrain, and his team of news producers, including Clooney as Fred Friendly, to expose him as a liar and a fraud. Murrow’s sense of decency and justice is offended by McCarthy and his cronies and in saying as much, he threatened his own position and that of his company, CBS. He is vilified by McCarthy’s supporters, his own management and by sponsors, who abandon the station as soon as the controversy breaks.

In framing the meat of his story between two snippets of a brilliant cautionary speech about the importance of an independent media that Murrow delivered at a dinner in his honour, Clooney presents his key episode as an almost surgical procedure – a group of right minded people in a position to do something who fight the tide of popular opinion and commercial pressure and fear of exposure to remove a malignant presence from the body politic.

Strathrain, a renowned theatre actor and veteran of almost 80 films but still a relatively unfamiliar face, is excellent as Murrow, suave and cool on the exterior but burning with a righteous fire of indignation underneath. Clooney plays Murrow’s dedicated producer Fred Friendly, with Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson making the strongest impressions from the remainder of the large ensemble cast. The other central character is McCarthy himself, and Clooney masterstroke is having the sweaty, charmless Senator play himself, using actual archive footage to damning effect. That the movie is entirely about 50 year old politics and the early days of the American television news business might discourage Irish audiences from seeking it out. But the movie is not really about the McCarthy and his pernicious influence, rather the rightminded way in which Murrow and his team eventually engineered his downfall. Far from a bitter polemic, the film is a morality play, as relevant and important to today’s international politics and the business of reporting the truth as it is a lovingly-crafted period drama.

McCarthy's flickering presence aside, Clooney does some interesting things as a director. In shooting in glorious black & white and expending considerable energy in getting his atmosphere and production design just right, Clooney is refusing to colourise the 1950s. This isn’t ironic homage, a Technicolour trip down memory lane, its straight reportage related with a dispassionate eye and attention to detail.

The story, about tough, principled men forced by a shift in politics to make a stand, to do the hard thing in an uncertain situation, is as much a call to arms for today’s society as an opportunity to revisit the past for guidance. Clooney keeps his camera tight to create intimacy and immediacy, and his script pared down to avoid confusion. He skilfully creates an attentive calm around his key moments, provoking the audience into joining the dots between what happened 50 years ago and what is happening today in terms of press freedom and civil liberties. The film’s message is crystal clear, bullies must be stopped and liars exposed.

1 comment:

Sinéad said...

Nice review John. I really liked the film. Strathrain impressed me as much as Philip Seymour Hoffman did in Capote. I hope one or the other wins the Oscar.