Good Night, and Good Luck

| November 5, 2005

In the closing minutes of George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) is given the opportunity to speak at his own tribute. As a famous reporter, most noted for his stand against the tyrannical Senator Joseph McCarthy, Murrow knows what he’s talking about when he speaks about the media. And as one of the first casualties in the slow inexorable grind from intellectual content to vapid entertainment, Murrow is more qualified than any to speak on the nature of television. What he says–one more notch in a series of parallels between the early 1950’s and the America of today–is that if television becomes obsessed with entertainment over content, the world will worsen and sink into sickening complacency.
The message, like Strathairn’s delivery, is dead-on, and Clooney has honored the integrity of that statement by making a movie filled with intelligent ideas. However, both Murrow and Clooney should have considered that without entertainment (the trap this very bland nigh-documentary falls into), the world will also worsen and sink into sickening complacency. Murrow can hardly be faulted–he was a newsman and would be far distanced from the world of today–but Clooney is an entertainer first, and a product of our times. There are ways to make a historical period piece (like the controversial Titanic or the most sedate and overlooked Far From Heaven) without becoming tedious.
First off, Clooney has chosen to make a black and white movie without any real understanding of how to do so. There is a dusty and grainy quality to the old (something which becomes quite apparent when watching the many historic clips Clooney has appendaged, like some weird Frankenstein’s monster, to his film), and Good Night, and Good Luck looks far too clean, as if it were shot in digital color and simply translated into a different palette. As a result, the art direction becomes bland, and while the accuracies of the period are there (wardrobe, set design, props), they seem more like novelties than realities.
Second, and most notably with the musical interstices between scenes, the sound often sounds scratchy, as if a phonograph is playing back an MP3. The two qualities of texture again contrast (constantly), and it’s quite distracting. As for the vocal interludes themselves, they, like many of the peripheral side-plots, cut far too deeply into the pacing of the film. As a result, Good Night, and Good Luck is a shaky narrative, one that can’t decide which story to tell (Murrow’s, or those of his co-workers) or how to tell it (cinematically or historically). Painfully accurate is the literal expression: this is no more than a documentary populated with actors: a recorded re-enactment.
But yet, what actors they are: Robert Downey Jr. and Frank Langella slip easily into their roles, as if they were second skins, and Patricia Clarkson and Jeff Daniels, though they seem unsure as to what they’re doing in the film, have a flawless fa├žade. The only weakness is Ray Wise (ironic, since he plays a journalist constantly derided by The Post), who not only doesn’t have a clue as to his purpose in the film, but seems uncomfortable playing such a secondary part. He commits suicide, but due to Clooney’s limited scope, we don’t really know why. He’s called a pinko, but he’s treated so well on camera and has such affluence that if he’s been driven mad by the red scare, Clooney either should have focused on that, or excised it from the film. The same goes for Downey and Clarkson, a married couple that pretends not to be married so they can hold their jobs. It’s a curious and interesting law, worthy of a sub-plot, but not in this movie: they have such a shallow and meaningless love affair on camera that again, there’s no attachment to their predicament.
The movie is strongest when it shows behind-the-scenes CBS (perhaps Aaron Sorkin might have lent a little life to this production): the political pressure and fear of McCarthyism and the bowing and bending to the necessity of maintaining advertisers. Unfortunately, Clooney spends the majority of time not with the power struggle between his own editor and Langella’s president, but with the actual news itself. These episodes are archived and the footage can be obtained (Clooney uses more than his fair share of it): there’s really no need to show us over and over again how accurately Strathairn can play a dead man. But that’s Clooney’s problem, both as an actor and director: he doesn’t want to establish the facts, he wants to wallow in them, to relish his own genius, as it were.
Ultimately, Good Night, and Good Luck succeeds as a period piece, but one so devoid of entertainment that you’ll be hard pressed to stay awake and watch it. The brevity of the film only supports that Clooney didn’t have enough material to work with (and again suggests that this were a topic better left for a documentary), as does the reliance on meaningless subplots and an abundance of archival footage. Furthermore, without a strong narrative thrust–there’s no real sense of danger, hence no excitement: Murrow is never tried, nor appears to suffer for his bravery–Good Night, and Good Luck simply ambles from one historic scene to another. Yes, a movie needs to be more than just a popcorn flick, but it can be smart and entertaining, and there’s no excuse for making a film boring.

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